Standing in front of the New York Rangers’ adorned backdrop on the fifth floor of Madison Square Garden, Eric Staal opened his soul Monday.
Leaving the Carolina Hurricanes was “bittersweet” in his words, but the possibility of competing with his brother Marc in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the Rangers was an opportunity he could not pass up.
“I started my career there, won a Stanley Cup there, a ton of memories that you’re leaving behind; but at the same time this is where I wanted to go, this is where I wanted to be,” Staal said after the Rangers’ morning skate at Madison Square Garden in preparation for Monday night’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Staal finished with two shot attempts in 15:43 of ice time. He began the game as the Rangers’ third line center between Kevin Hayes and Oscar Lindberg, before moving to left wing on a line with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello in the third period.
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“We were both excited to start it up here,” Marc Staal said about playing with his older brother, who became the first player in NHL history to play with three brothers in his career, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Eric played with Jordan and Jared as a member of the Hurricanes.
The Rangers landed Staal in a trade from the Hurricanes Sunday, ending one of the most successful tenures a player has had with the franchise. The 31-year-old was a significant piece of the team’s only Stanley Cup championship in 2006, and is second all time in goals, assists, and points. In 63 games this season, Staal has 10 goals and 23 assists for 33 points.
When you miss the playoffs for six years and you’re the leader, the captain, it’s tough. There was a lot of trying times.
Eric Staal on trade from Hurricanes
But by his own admission, six straight seasons missing the playoffs had taken a toll. So when general manager Ron Francis let him know New York was interested in adding him to a group that has reached the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the last four seasons, the decision to leave the only professional home he has ever known was intriguing.
“When you miss the playoffs for six years and you’re the leader, the captain, it’s tough. There was a lot of trying times. For a lot of different reasons it didn’t happen the way you envisioned. For me it was time for this opportunity and this chance,” Staal said.
“(The Rangers) haven’t gotten it done yet but they’re very close. ,” he continued.
Still, by joining the Rangers, it meant saying goodbye to the organization he had become synonymous with. The Hurricanes selected Staal with the second overall pick in the 2003 draft, and traded for his brother, Jordan, on June 22, 2012, in an attempt to build the franchise around the two power centers.
But then-GM Jim Rutherford’s vision never came to fruition, leaving Francis to orchestrate a rebuilding process.
“The discussions I had with management, the direction they were wanting to go in, he knew it was a possibility. It doesn’t make it any easier,” Eric said of Jordan, before touching on how the trade could affect the remaining Hurricanes. “When you makes moves like the Hurricanes did yesterday, it can kind of be a letdown for the guys in the room that have pushed hard to put them in the spot they are.”
Staal expressed excitement to be a part of a team that is a playoff contender where he is most likely going to play his natural position of center.
The only question is for how long. Staal will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, and New York may not have enough room under the salary cap to re-sign him.
When the topic was raised, Staal demurred.
“I’m focused on fitting in with this group, this team, and playing out these 20 games and hopefully having a big playoffs,” Staal said. “That’s why I wanted to come here. I wanted to help this group moving forward. That kind of stuff we’ll worry about later.”