By most measures, the Carolina Hurricanes are off to a rough start, with only two wins in their last nine games and sitting near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Tonight they're in New York to face the Rangers, looking to snap a 3-game losing streak. Between his 7 games without a point and a ridiculously poor plus/minus rating, now down to -16, the Canes’ captain Eric Staal has been fingered as a big part of the overall problem.
As the Canes play the New York Rangers tonight, the media there has been quick to blame Eric’s scoresheet troubles on sadness and/or guilt over his brother Marc’s struggles. As the Blueshirts’ top defenseman, Marc Staal’s setbacks recovering from post-concussion symptoms (which began after a powerful hit delivered by his older brother in Raleigh last February) receive daily press in the Big Apple.
I can’t speak to Marc’s status, but if we’re looking for answers to Eric’s underwhelming statistics, like others who have watched the oldest brother and this Carolina team for years, I’m certain the issue is not his brother Marc’s concussion.
Eric Staal established himself as a legitimate NHL superstar in 2006 with 100+ points and a key role in the team’s run to a Stanley Cup Championship. Just 21 years old at the time, he set the bar high, and it’s been one tough act to follow. Since 06, the team that surrounds him has been overhauled completely while simultaneously constrained by a low budget. That Staal was signed to a contract which gives him the 4th highest cap hit in the League this year ($8.25mil) adds to the expectations.
It’s been a full five years since Eric was the first Staal to bring the Cup home to Thunder Bay, ON. Since then, most all of the forwards from that 06 crew have retired or moved on, the most recent being Erik Cole's departure to Montreal. Eric Staal’s NHL game was developed with Cole at his side, using the winger’s speed and power to push defenders back, thus giving Staal the time and space he has come to rely on to be effective.
Staal, at his best, is a powerful “North-South” skater with blazing speed and a wicked shot. But I’ve never heard anyone praise him for his vision, hockey sense or finesse. When you’re as fiercely competitive and have the size, strength and shot to get the job done, thinking outside the box simply hasn’t been necessary (see: Ovechkin, Alex). The tools Staal brings to the ice are the best in the business, which makes re-tooling that much more difficult.
The main issue for Eric Staal this season, with Cole absent, is the lack of compatible linemates – finding those who can both set him up and/or finish. Carolina has some prospects with dazzling potential, but it’s been notable that the rookies tend to “dial down” their skills on the ice to defer to their “Triple Gold” winning Captain. Doesn't help things that the youngsters also have to face the top defensemen in the League 20+ minutes a night. The results have been inconsistent at best.
Calder Trophy winner and all-around puck magician Jeff Skinner has played off-and-on at Staal’s left wing this season – it has not been the solution, with defensive lapses hurting the team. Still, Staal’s 6 points this season have accumulated from only 3 games, and Skinner was on the ice for all six of them. Seriously.
Finding linemates for Eric Staal is a perennial challenge in Carolina. In July, GM Jim Rutherford signed veteran LW Alexei Ponikarovsky and then another winger, Anthony Stewart; both are typical power forwards who, like Cole, will crash the net with size and speed. So far Poni has had some opportunities, but Stewart, who is hampered by a lower body concern has yet to see time on the top line.
In recent weeks, Chad LaRose, who is the only member of the 06 Cup team remaining (other than Goalie Cam Ward), has been skating next to Staal on the RW. Seen as a bottom-six energy guy, this overslotting drew consternation from the fans who felt they were watching a trusted ’94 Ford pickup running with the highest class of Maserati. Yes, LaRose has put up points during this experiment, but nada thing from the big man in the center.
Tonight, in the Garden, Paul Maurice will give 22-year-old Zach Boychuk his chance with Staal. The Canes have been waiting for Boychuk, one of their most highly regarded prospects since he was drafted 14th overall in 2008, to live up to expectations at the NHL level. This is a golden opportunity for Boychuk to show he is [finally] ready to step up with both the quickness and soft hands that recall another 06 Cup winner, Ray Whitney.
If that doesn’t work out, maybe in a week or two we’ll see rookie Zac Dalpe, also 22, who plays the same North-South game that was Cole’s signature in his 10 seasons as a power forward in Raleigh.
Finally, given the circumstances, those rumors telling us Rutherford is working hard on a meaningful trade are credible as well.
So enough with this New York psycho-babble assigning Eric Staal’s slump as a symptom of brotherly guilt. Instead, keep an eye on how the Canes top line evolves until something clicks and their captain re-establishes success on the scoresheet.
It’s a new page in Staal’s career – perhaps the first time he’s been so challenged. He has some work to do but, provided time and the right players to skate with, I think it’s a safe bet he’ll figure it out. Whether it’s soon enough to get the Carolina season back on track is the question.
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.