Jordan Staal and Victor Rask sit side-by-side in the Carolina Hurricanes locker room, different in age, experience and nationality but sharing a common position and now a bond.
Staal, 26, is a Canadian center with almost 600 NHL games under his belt, winning a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins before being traded to the Canes in 2012.
Rask, 21, is a rookie center from Sweden making his way through his first NHL season.
A broken leg sidelined Staal for nearly the first half the season. And the injury, while unfortunate for Staal and damaging for the Hurricanes, provided an unexpected opportunity for Rask, who has made the most of it and proven himself on the NHL level.
“With injuries, guys are counted on to do more than they were expected to,” Staal said. “He’s done a great job for us. He’s young and will only get better and that’s only a positive for our group.
“He works hard but he’s smart, too. He’s not a risk-taker and he’s always going to be positionally sound. And when he does get the puck he protects it well.”
Sounds a little like Staal describing himself. But Rask has been that kind of player – not a big point-producer, but dependable in all three zones.
Had Staal not fractured his right fibula in a Sept. 23 preseason game, Rask would have started the season with the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League and may have stayed put.
“He was supposed to be in Charlotte as the No. 1 center,” Canes coach Bill Peters said.
Instead, Rask has been with the Canes, centering different lines and different wingers. In the past two games, he has centered a line with Canes captain Eric Staal on his left wing – something Rask said would have been unimaginable much of the season until Peters made the change.
“It’s a lot of fun to play with him,” Rask said. “He’s a really smart player and when you play with him you know there will be scoring chances and will play a lot in the (offensive) zone.”
Rask played the first 54 games of the season before Peters decided to make him a healthy scratch for two games.
“It was more mental fatigue for Victor than physical, I thought,” Peters said. “Just mentally he wasn’t as dialed in, as sharp. He was looking tired, acting tired. Probably was tired.”
Rask, who has a sturdy frame at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, said it wasn’t the grind wearing on him, but more a matter of executing better and bearing down.
“I was thinking too much on the ice,” Rask said. “Don’t think too much, just play the game you’ve always played.”
In the seven games since being scratched, Rask has a goal, four assists and a plus-2 rating. He picked up his ninth goal of the season Tuesday in the 4-3 shootout loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, has 14 assists and has won 50.6 percent of his faceoffs.
In his first game against Pittsburgh, Rask took draws against Pens star Sidney Crosby, saying, “I watched him a lot as a kid, so that was cool.”
Crosby won all five head-to-head draws as Rask finished 1-11 in the circle. A night later, in the second of a home-and-home set, Rask was 6-5 on draws against Crosby and 9-6 overall.
It’s all a part of the education of a rookie centerman in the league, Staal said, and something he experienced in the 2006-2007 season with the Pens.
“It’s not easy,” Staal said. “There’s the physical aspect and I think ‘Rasker’ has handled that well. For the most part it’s being consistent every game... ”
Asked how much advice he has offered Rask in the room, Staal smiled and said not too much.
“He’s got that professional attitude and has it figured out as a rookie,” Staal said.