The Carolina Hurricanes’ practice had ended Wednesday and there was a team flight to catch but Eric Staal stayed out on the PNC Arena ice.
Staal, the Canes’ captain, circled the rink several times by himself, puck-handling, taking a few shots. Alone with his thoughts.
Staal may have been thinking about his goal-less streak, now 13 games. He may have been thinking about the Canes’ 2-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday, or the team’s chances of making the Stanley Cup playoffs this season.
Then again, Staal also could have been thinking about changes possibly to come.
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It’s a subject hard to avoid in the Canes’ locker room, even as they win games and pick up points. The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 29 and chances are Canes general manager Ron Francis will look to make some moves.
Some of the Canes insist the speculation has not been that big a distraction, and Carolina is 10-4-5 in January and February.
“But it’s easier said than done,” Staal said. “Some situations are different than others and for me this year it’s the first time in my career there’s been a little bit of uncertainty. It’s been challenging at certain moments but the reality is I’m playing a game for a living that I’m grateful for and happy to do it for this team.
“For now, I’m going to focus on getting us points and wins. We’ve done a good job as a group improving every day as the year has gone on, and we’ve got a belief in here if we keep improving and doing things the right way we’ll keep picking up points and wins and keep the ball rolling.”
He’s been excellent in the room, excellent on the bench. He’s a big part of what we’re doing right now.
Canes coach Bill Peters on Eric Staal
Francis, with an eye to the future, could look to trade such players as Staal, forward Kris Versteeg and defenseman John-Michael Liles. Goalie Cam Ward is another possibility.
All are due to become unrestricted free agents after the season. Staal and Ward have no-trade clauses in their contracts and have final approval of any proposed move.
“When I was younger I used up a lot of energy focusing on it,” Liles said of trade speculation. “It’s not really productive thing to go through in your mind.
“For me, at 35, it’s possible I could go. It’s possible I could stay. It’s the same for ‘Staalsy’ and ‘Wardo.’ For me I think it’s a little different because I’ve been traded twice. I’ve been through that process. My wife has been through that process. It’s part of the business. For guys like Staalsy and Wardo, who have only played in this organization, it’s a bit tougher.”
Staal and Ward are former first-round draft picks by the Canes, Stanley Cup winners and a big part of the franchise foundation. Staal has played 903 regular-season games for Carolina and Ward 548 games. It’s hard to imagine the Hurricanes without them.
Both are represented by agent Rick Curran and Staal said Tuesday that Curran and Francis continue to have “dialogue.” Staal said there has been no mention of the no-trade clause or being asked to waive it by Francis.
“There’s nothing new,” Staal said. “I’ve just been focused on trying to play and we’ll see how that turns out in the next little while.”
Canes coach Bill Peters said he tries to stay away from the speculation. He’s too busy game-planning and preparing his team, leaving the personnel issues to Francis.
Of Staal, he said, “He’s been excellent in the room, excellent on the bench. He’s a big part of what we’re doing right now.”
The Canes (26-21-10), two points out of playoff position after Tuesday’s games, have a road game Thursday against the Ottawa Senators. Injured defenseman Justin Faulk did not make the trip and will need more time to recover from a lower-body injury.
Ward, who has been slowed with a lower-body injury, will make the trip and could play. Goalie Daniel Altshuller was reassigned Wednesday to the Florida Everblades of the East Coast Hockey League and will soon rejoin the Charlotte Checkers.
“I think everyone is just focusing on coming to the rink and trying to get points,” forward Jeff Skinner said. “We’re in the thick of things right now and we want to try and stay there and move ourselves up.”