Barely a week into preseason camp, the Carolina Hurricanes suddenly are scrambling, facing a key injury.
Jordan Staal is out indefinitely with a broken bone in his lower right leg. The center suffered the injury Tuesday in the 2-0 exhibition loss at Buffalo, falling to the ice after a puck battle with the Sabres’ Josh Gorges.
“No question, when you lose a player and a player like Jordan, it’s a big loss,” general manager Ron Francis said Wednesday. “It’s also an opportunity for someone else. We’ll see if any of the young guys can step up and grab that spot. We’ll look at all options at how to try and fill the void.
“I know it’s frustrating for him. Jordan is in excellent shape after a great summer of conditioning. Hopefully that can help him bounce back quicker when we do get him back.”
Staal is the Canes’ best defensive center and, on a team generally lacking good size, its biggest, strongest player. He has served as an alternate captain. He adds so much to the lineup and in the locker room.
Coach Bill Peters said the injury was a “huge blow” and said no one player could replace Staal.
“We don’t have a guy we can plug in to replace what he can do at 6-(foot-)4 and 230” pounds, Peters said. “But we have guys who can do it by committee.”
Staal and Gorges collided in front of the benches during the third period and the two fell to the ice. Staal was left grimacing in pain, had to be helped to the locker room and was on crutches after the game.
Francis said a timetable on Staal’s return won’t be known until Thursday, after Staal has further medical evaluation in Raleigh.
In the short term, Elias Lindholm will be moved from wing to center. Lindholm, a first-round draft pick in 2013, was to center Jeff Skinner and Jiri Tlusty on Wednesday in the exhibition against the New York Islanders in Uniondale, N.Y.
“We looked at him on the wing last season but felt he could go back to center at some point,” Francis said. “Is this the time or not? We’ll see.”
Victor Rask, 21, is coming off his first full professional season with the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League. The Swedish center already had made a good impression on Peters with his overall play before Staal’s injury.
The Canes have other options at center. Riley Nash centered the third line last season. Center Jay McClement was signed as a free agent. Brad Malone, another free-agent signee, played center while in the Colorado Avalanche organization.
Staal, 26, has not missed a game since the June 2012 trade from the Pittsburgh Penguins, playing all 48 in the lockout-shortened 2013 season and 82 last season. He had been injury-free since a tough run in Pittsburgh late in 2010 when he was sidelined following foot surgery, then he fractured his hand when hit by a puck in practice.
Staal made some changes to his offseason training regimen this summer, traveling with brother Eric to Connecticut to consult and work with trainer Ben Prentiss, whose NHL clients at Prentiss Hockey Performance include teammate Nathan Gerbe.
During the Canes’ informal skates before training camp, Eric Staal said he sensed Jordan was ready for a special season.
“I think it’s a big year for him,” Eric Staal said. “He’s definitely in the best shape I’ve ever seen him in. He has to feel confident about that and can go from there.”
Eric Staal had surgery this summer for a core-muscle injury and was held out of the first two exhibitions. He’s now more concerned about his brother,
Eric Staal said Jordan was in “OK spirits.” He said the injury was a “tough pill” for Jordan.
“He’ll rebound from it and we’ll do it as a team,” Eric Staal said.