Luke DeCock

DeCock: Jordan Staal’s injury opens big door for Canes’ smaller names

Carolina Hurricanes prospect Victor Rask practices Monday, July 11, 2011, during the Hurricanes' conditioning camp at the Polar Ice House in Wake Forest. TRAVIS LONG -
Carolina Hurricanes prospect Victor Rask practices Monday, July 11, 2011, during the Hurricanes' conditioning camp at the Polar Ice House in Wake Forest. TRAVIS LONG -

The fate of the Carolina Hurricanes may now hinge upon Riley Nash and Victor Rask.

That’s a player who has seen sporadic third-line center duty over his 110 NHL games with the Hurricanes and a 21-year-old who has yet to make his NHL debut.

Not household names, to say the least.

That’s the best the Hurricanes have to offer in what figures to be the lengthy absence of Jordan Staal, and barring a desperate scrape of the bottom of the free-agent barrel, that’ll have to do for as long as Staal is out.

Staal, who broke his leg Tuesday night and is scheduled to undergo surgery Friday that will keep him out for at least three months and possibly longer, isn’t just the Hurricanes’ second-line center. He isn’t just big and strong. He isn’t just the first option against the opposition’s top line. He isn’t just a pivotal player on the power play, short-handed and in three-on-five situations.

He’s all of that.

“Obviously we have to figure out how to fill that hole,” Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner said. “It’s not going to be one person. It’s going to be by committee.”

The biggest hole to fill, though, is at even strength, where Staal played behind his brother Eric and took on the heaviest defensive duties.

Elias Lindholm was drafted to be a top-six center and Skinner has played center occasionally in his NHL career. But moving either of them to center on a regular basis – they’ll both certainly see time there – means weakening the Hurricanes on the wings, where they have even fewer options.

That means the first option is to move Nash, with 14 goals and 34 points in his career, into Jordan Staal’s spot while Rask – who has made more of an impression in this training camp than in his three previous camps combined – will get his first shot in the NHL as well.

“It’s a lot of minutes that just went down with that injury,” Nash said. “There’s quite a few guys in here who are looking for that opportunity to fill a void and take on new roles they didn’t necessarily have last year.”

Neither is going to strike fear into NHL opponents at this point, but both Nash and Rask are on the verge of being handed the opportunity of a lifetime.

“And not only them,” Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said. “It’s going to trickle down through the lineup.”

It’s a little early to start glooming-and-dooming, but it’s still worth looking down the road a bit. If the loss of Staal does torpedo the Hurricanes in the early going – and with six of the first eight games on the road it’s certainly possible – this is shaping up to be one of better drafts in recent memory, with three players who would all be the No. 1 pick in other years.

The long-term health of the franchise would certainly be served by being in a position to draft center Connor McDavid with the No. 1 pick – a Steven Stamkos/John Tavares-caliber player, the kind that gets a team invited to play in outdoor games and the like. Center Jack Eichel and defenseman Noah Hanifin aren’t far behind. Any of the three would be a potential star for the Hurricanes.

The long-term health of the franchise would be even better served by ending the five-year playoff drought. That remains possible. The Hurricanes aren’t a great team, but they’re probably not as bad as the hockey world is expecting them to be, even without Jordan Staal.

If they can avoid cratering while Staal is out, if Nash and Rask flourish, his return might offer a welcome midseason jumpstart. At least, it’s nice to think it might.

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