The question will always be there: could the Canes have contended for a playoff spot this season had Jordan Staal not been injured?
When Staal left the Sept. 23 exhibition game against the Buffalo Sabres with a leg injury, many around the team immediately sensed the worst. The feeling that night was that it would not be a three-or four-week type of injury. It would be worse.
And it was. There was a palpable sense of gloom surrounding the team the next day, and later came the announcement that Staal had a broken leg and would be out three to four months.
When Staal returned in late-December, the Canes were 10-21-4. From that point until the March 2 trade deadline, Carolina was 14-9-3.
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"Obviously, it was an unfortunate start for myself and the team," Staal said Monday. "It's not easy breaking a leg and later jumping right into it. I had a fairly decent start when I came back, I went through a little lull there personally -- still played OK but not as good as I wanted to -- and then starting finding my legs again at the end. By then it was too little, too late."
Staal had changed his offseason training program and believed he was in the best shape of his career heading into preseason camp. At 6-foot-4 and 237 pounds, he's the Canes' biggest player, best checking center and had been effective on special teams.
"Having him changes everything," Canes coach Bill Peters said. "He's 6-foot-4 every shift. He plays a heavy game."
Then, in a flash, he was gone, sidelined the first 35 games. For the Canes, a key piece was missing and it caused a ripple effect in the lineup. More injuries soon would follow -- to Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner, Nathan Gerbe.
"Obviously losing 'Jordo' is not a good situation to be in," defenseman Justin Faulk said. "I think every team has injuries and you have to go from there. Columbus had the whole team injured, it seemed, and at the end of the year they won like 10 games in a row.
"It's not a one-player sport, right? It might the one of your best players but if you play 20 minutes there's still 40 minutes left in the game the other (centers) have to play. It's about stepping up and getting done as a team. I have a tough time believing one player makes a huge difference. I do think 'Jordo' is a great player. Having him is a huge help and it's fun playing with him, but it's a team effort."
In 46 games, Staal had six goals and 18 assists, finishing minus-6. He had several different wingers on his line but late in the season had his brother on his left wing and Alex Semin on the right side.
"The way we finished this season made me feel good about where we're at and where we're headed," Jordan Staal said. "The way we've played our system and learned the way we need to play for our coach and what he demands of us, you can tell we've had a more consistent game. You can tell we're in a lot more matches."
As far as potential offseason moves by the team, Staal said "something definitely has to be changed" after another playoff miss. But only general manager Ron Francis knows if the planned changes will be large or small, either through free agency or trades.
Jordan Staal signed a 10-year, $60 million contract extension with Carolina soon after the June 2012 trade from the Pittsburgh Penguins. and has pressed at times trying to meet expectations that come with a big contract.
"I can definitely improve as a player," he said. "There has been a lot of demands on me here and I'm going to keep trying to meet those demands. I know I've got to keep getting better if this team is going to make the playoffs."