Eric Staal didn’t have long to say goodbye. After more than 900 career games, a Stanley Cup and so many memories for the Carolina Hurricanes, he was gone quickly Sunday.
The Hurricanes and New York Rangers agreed on a deal just a few hours before the Canes’ game against the St. Louis Blues at PNC Arena. Staal, the Canes’ team captain, was traded, leaving behind a younger brother, Jordan, but soon to join another, Rangers defenseman Marc Staal.
Staal only had a few minutes to get in a few words with Jordan, with his Canes teammates and coaches before leaving the arena.
“He was kind of talking to everybody, so he only briefly talked to me,” Jordan Staal said. “It was obviously tough. A little bit of emotion between the both of us. It’s not what we envisioned, but we’ll have to move forward and play the game we love.”
Eric Staal, 31, has been a cornerstone, and for many, the face of the Hurricanes for a decade. At 21, he lifted the Stanley Cup in victory. In January 2010, he succeeded Rod Brind’Amour as captain. For much of his career he has watched other teams make the playoffs while the Canes missed out.
Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis was somber Sunday in discussing the Staal trade. Since the franchise moved to North Carolina in 1997, Staal has been the Canes biggest star, a 6-foot-4 center who combined skill and power, who ranks first in career games played, goals, assists, points.
“Any time you trade a guy who has been the face of your franchise, been here a long time and done a lot of good things for our organization, on the ice and in the community, it’s never an easy day,” Francis said.
But Francis again stressed the big picture, of the need of stockpiling assets such as draft picks and prospects, saying: “We felt this was an important opportunity for us to continue our work in building an organization that can consistently compete in the Stanley Cup playoffs.”
Any time you trade a guy who has been the face of your franchise, been here a long time and done a lot of good things for our organization, on the ice and in the community, it’s never an easy day.
Canes general manager Ron Francis
Staal was the second overall pick in the 2003 NHL draft. In his second NHL season, 2005-2006, he had 100 points in the regular season and then was the leading scorer in the Stanley Cup playoffs with nine goals and 19 assists.
The NHL trade deadline is Monday at 3 p.m., and there had been strong speculation that Eric Staal would be traded, something that might have seemed unimaginable a few years ago. But he’s in the final year of a long-term contract that paid him $9.5 million this season and he will be an unrestricted free agent after the season.
Francis said Sunday that he had several discussions with Staal’s agent, Rick Curran, about a contract extension but that neither side seemed comfortable with the length or dollars being discussed.
“For me, at the stage he is in his career and the stage we are as a franchise and what we’re trying to build, it was difficult to get comfortable with a longer term,” Francis said Sunday. “I don’t think he was asking for the world. His parameters were fair.”
Staal had a no-trade clause in his contract and final approval on any proposal. He agreed to waive the clause, permitting the trade to be completed Saturday and Sunday.
In return for Staal, the Canes received a second-round pick in each of the 2016 and 2017 NHL drafts and prospect Aleksi Saarela, 19, a center playing for Assat Pori in the SM-liiga in Finland.
While Francis would not confirm it, it’s believed the Canes retained a portion of Staal’s remaining salary.
Later Sunday, the Canes traded forward Kris Versteeg to the Los Angeles Kings for Russian forward Valentin Zykov and a conditional fifth-round draft pick in 2016. Versteeg came to the Canes in a September trade with the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Hurricanes led the Blues 2-1 after the first period Sunday but lost 5-2. There was the distraction of having Staal traded before the game, but also of having forwards Versteeg and Riley Nash leave during the game, leaving the Canes with nine available forwards. Center Jay McClement was listed in the lineup but has an injury and did not play.
Like Eric Staal, Versteeg and Nash will become unrestricted free agents after the season. Their departure during the game, and Canes coach Bill Peters saying not all of the three were injured, only added to the speculation about further moves.
Staal’s overtime goal won Game 3 in the opening playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens during the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs. A goal with three seconds left forced overtime against New Jersey in Game 2 of the next series, and the Canes went on to win that game. They also took the next two series, against Buffalo and Edmonton, both in seven games.
Staal had 20 or more goals in nine of the past 10 seasons before this year, although his production has dipped – Staal had 10 goals and 23 assists in 63 games this season. He has been durable, playing in more than 98 percent of Carolina’s games – 909 in the regular season and 43 in the playoffs.
Staal appeared in four consecutive NHL All-Star Games and was named the game MVP in 2008. The Thunder Bay, Ontario, native helped Canada win the gold medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver becoming a member of the “Triple Gold Club” (Olympic, Stanley Cup and World Championship titles).
He holds franchise records for goals in a game (4), points in a game (6), hat tricks in a season (4) and hat tricks in a career (13, passing Francis.)
“He’s had a big, big impact on this franchise,” Peters said. “And he’s still a young guy with lots of hockey to be played.
“He’s been excellent. He’s been a great captain. I have nothing but respect for the guy.”
Like his players, Peters had little time to talk to Staal on Sunday. Asked about their parting, Peters appeared touched by emotion.
“Real quick,” he said. “It was hard.”