As his 1,000th NHL game approaches, Eric Staal always envisioned that coming in a Carolina Hurricanes uniform. It will come instead in a Minnesota Wild uniform, not Thursday night at PNC Arena when the Wild visit Staal's former home, but two games after that.
So this is not how it was drawn up when Staal signed a seven-year, $58 million deal with the Hurricanes in 2008, but that was true of both Staal and the Hurricanes. Their relationship, and its eventual dissolution last spring, is a story of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential, for both team and player. And as Staal appears headed for his second straight playoff appearance (after last season with the New York Rangers), the Hurricanes will miss for the eighth straight season.
His success with the Wild, in a reduced role without any specific leadership responsibility, suggests Staal would have been able to thrive here on a better team, under different circumstances than those of his last few years in Raleigh.
The blame goes both ways, although it's absolutely open for debate who assumes more. Staal was never capable, as a first-line center or as a captain, of lifting a substandard team into the playoffs. In both cases, it was probably an unfair burden to ask him to carry, especially considering the succession of mediocre wingers he was asked to elevate and the subpar rosters that surrounded him.
Once the core of the 2002-2006-2009 teams moved on, Staal was asked to be a superstar. Which, as it turns out, he isn't. And as that became clear, then-general manager Jim Rutherford continued to take that approach, although his hands were somewhat tied by the team's financial situation. Still, the Hurricanes' failure to do a better job of surrounding Staal with talent – including the Jordan Staal trade, which didn't have the intended effect – is a big part of what turned a once-promising partnership between team and captain into a descent into drudgery.
“I think when I signed and I was there I envisioned being there forever,” Staal said Wednesday. “I think that's what you always envision as a player. It doesn't always work out that way and it didn't for me, either. I'm truly very happy with where I ended up and the group I'm with. We've got a great team. And it's a great organization that is really hungry to win. There's nothing better as a player to be a part of a team and a group that's really, really hungry for another opportunity, and that's what I want.”
There's a lot to unpack in those last few sentences. “Great team.” “Great organization that is really hungry to win.” Whether Staal was intentionally drawing comparisons to the Hurricanes during his latter years there or not – and he probably wasn't but who's to say for sure – there's no question none of that applied to the team then.
Even now, when you look at the Hurricanes, who's really committed to winning? Most of the players on the roster are too young to understand what that really means. Bill Peters is. Ron Francis is, although his eyes are always on the long term, and that was never going to work for Staal at this point in his career. And Peter Karmanos is committed to … owning the team, which is about as nicely as it can be put.
(And what's going to happen when all these great young defensemen come up for big new contracts? Francis has been carefully preserving future salary-cap space, but will he be allowed to use it?)
Staal was an absolutely essential part of the 2006 team, and he single-handedly willed the Hurricanes into the second round in 2009. When he was good, he was really good. Certainly, he bears some responsibility for the stagnation afterward, both of the team and his game, but he's shown in Minnesota that he can still be a valuable contributor in the right situation.
In the last several years of his time here, it just wasn't.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock