After scoring a career-high 45 goals and 100 points in 2005-06 to help lead the Carolina Hurricanes to their first Stanley Cup win, Staal and his teammates have fallen on hard times.
Incredibly, the Hurricanes enter the 2008-09 campaign with the hope of just qualifying for the postseason for the first time in three seasons. It's a touchy subject, but, at the same time, the 'Canes realize it will remain an issue so long as they're on the outside and looking in on the playoffs.
For Staal, who has quickly established himself as a perennial 30-goal scorer, getting back to the playoffs is the No. 1 priority.
"It's been two years since winning that we haven't been there and we really should have been, so it's definitely frustrating for all of us," Staal told NHL.com. "I think we've made some positive changes this offseason and have added some depth on the blue line. Hopefully, that'll help with our power play and with moving the puck forward and getting it to where we need to be."
The mobility along the blue line was strengthened when Carolina General Manager Jim Rutherford acquired Joni Pitkanen from Edmonton for left wing Erik Cole. Additionally, Rutherford signed Anton Babchuk (Russian Super League in 2007-08) and Josef Melichar (Swedish Elite League) to take the place of the retired Glen Wesley and Bret Hedican. It marked a continued summer rebuilding process of a defense that ranked 25th in the League, allowing three goals per game. Rutherford's move to acquire defenseman Joe Corvo from the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 11 was also a huge boost to the back end.
"It'll be interesting to see how (the defense) works itself out," said Staal, who will be entering his fifth season in Carolina.
The Hurricanes were actually atop the Southeast Division for much of the season before losing out to the surging Washington Capitals on the final day of the regular season. The Canes needed to win two of their final four games to secure a playoff berth, but just couldn't get it done. As it turned out, the Hurricanes dropped four of their final six games, including two against the Caps. Carolina has had to anguish all summer over the fact they were the first team in NHL history to miss the playoffs two seasons in a row after capturing the Cup.
Still, despite the postseason misery, Staal has seen an increased interest in hockey among the Carolina fans since his rookie season.
"Anytime a team wins anywhere, it makes a difference, and Carolina was no different," Staal said. "Since I've been in Carolina, the fan base has grown tremendously, and I think there are more hockey fans in the area now and the game has definitely grown.
"Right now, there aren't enough hockey rinks in the area to meet the demand of kids playing the game. That's exciting and I just hope it continues."
At the rate he's progressed, it wouldn't be surprising if Staal, who posted 38 goals and 82 points in 82 games last season, is named the team's captain in the near future. He was an alternate to veteran Rod Brind'Amour in 2007-08. He was also named MVP of last season's NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta after collecting two goals and an assist to help lead the Eastern Conference to an 8-7 victory against the West.
"It's been two years since winning that we haven't been there and we really should have been, so it's definitely frustrating for all of us." – Eric Staal"I enjoy seeing the new faces (rookies) coming into the dressing room because you remember what it was like when you first walked into the dressing room," Staal said. "I remember how wide-open my eyes were and not being sure what to say to some of the older guys. But the main thing is just making everyone feel comfortable. Everyone in the dressing room is a great hockey player so it's just a matter of finding your needs or your comfort zone and trying to get guys into that right frame of mind."
While the 23-year-old Staal needs just 17 points to reach 300 for his career, he still feels there's room for improvement in his game.
"I'd like to work on my faceoffs and get a little better within the circle," Staal said. "When it comes to faceoffs, I've got a pretty good guy to keep an eye on and learn from (Brind'Amour), but sometimes it's easier said than done. I'd also like to sure up my defensive play since that's an area I feel every player in the League is looking to improve each season."
Contact Mike Morreale at firstname.lastname@example.org.