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Staal Returns to Raleigh Again

by Michael Smith @MSmithCanes / CarolinaHurricanes.com

When Eric Staal made his first appearance at PNC Arena in an opposing team's sweater, it was weird.

It was a strange, jarring, emotional occurrence, and it happened just a month after the Carolina Hurricanes' longtime captain was traded to the New York Rangers.

Emotions were high and eyes were not dry during the first television timeout, when the Hurricanes honored their second-overall draft pick from 2003 with a tribute video. Staal raised his stick and took a twirl on the ice as the hometown crowd roared on their feet in appreciation of the player who logged 909 games with the organization and helped to bring a Stanley Cup to Raleigh in 2006.

Video: Thank You, Eric!

Nearly a year later, it's a little different. The Hurricanes are still without a captain, but a new, young leadership core is emerging. Staal, after signing with the Minnesota Wild in the summer, began the 2016-17 season anew and has thrived in a fresh environment.

"Playing in the league, you try to perform the best you can every single night regardless of the situation," Staal said after practice in Raleigh on Wednesday. "Obviously when you're pushing for the playoffs and you're with a team that's expected to win every night, it's exciting. We've got a great team and a good group."

In 68 games, Staal ranks second on the Wild in scoring (53 points), and he's tied for the team lead in goals (23). Staal is on pace to tally nearly 64 points this season, which would be his most prolific offensive output since 2011-12, when he registered 70 points (24g, 46a). (Though, he was producing above a point-per-game pace in the 2012-13 shortened season, on track for nearly 91 points in a complete 82-game docket.)

And his team is challenging the Chicago Blackhawks for the top spot in the Western Conference.

Video: Eric Staal talks about facing the Hurricanes

"It's fun. We're fighting right now to get back to dunking in wins like we had a lot earlier on," Staal said. "We still like the position we're in and the team we have. We want to finish strong before the playoffs start."

Flip the calendar back eight months. Staal, an unrestricted free agent for the first time after 12 seasons in the NHL, was looking for a new opportunity following his short stint with the Rangers that briefly returned him to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

"It's been great to join this group. We've got a great, experienced, good hockey team, and I knew that before I came here. It was about finding the right fit last summer, and I was hoping it would be Minnesota because of what I thought I could help bring," Staal recounted. "Fortunately for me, these guys here were excited to have me and were really welcoming with open arms. It's been a great transition for me and for my family just to jump on board and learn as the year has gone on with how guys are personality-wise and fitting with the leaders on this team."

Just 88 of Staal's now 997 regular-season games in the NHL have been played with a team other than the Hurricanes.

The millennium mark was one he thought he'd one day cross over wearing the same crest he donned on stage in Nashville in the summer of 2003.

"When I signed and was there, I envisioned being there forever. I think that's what you always envision as a player. It doesn't always work out that way, and it didn't for me either," Staal said. "I'm truly very happy with where I ended up and the group I'm with. We've got a great team, and this is a great organization that is really hungry to win. There's nothing better as a player to be a part of a team and group that's really, really hungry for another opportunity. That's what I want. We want to finish strong this season and hopefully do some good things in the playoffs."

Raleigh still holds a special place in Staal's heart. It was where he settled down with his wife, Tanya, and where his family grew by three in the years after. It was where he was the face of a franchise, a leader on and off the ice and a valuable member of the community.

"You develop friendships away from the game through other sports, schools and neighbors. It's the people you miss. I've tried to stay in touch, but as they know and everyone knows, the NHL season is pretty busy this year," Staal said. "And the area, it's a great place to be."

When Staal made his return to PNC Arena on the last day of March last season, he registered the Rangers' first shot of the game, and it was a quality scoring opportunity in the slot that was turned away by the sprawling left pad of his good friend in the blue paint, Cam Ward.

Video: NYR@CAR: Ward robs former teammate E. Staal in front

Staal and the Wild might draw Eddie Lack in net this time around, an uncertainty at this point, but what can be expected for Eric or perhaps Mikael Granlund: a healthy dose of his brother, Jordan, just like old times.

"It will bring me back to playing against him when he was in Pittsburgh. He said he's got some good legs, so he'll be ready tomorrow night," Eric said. "I've been watching these guys. I know a lot of them, so I've been paying attention. He's been playing well. He's big and strong, and he controls a lot of the play when he's on the ice. He doesn't give up a lot. It will be a challenge whoever's against him."

A year later, it's a little different. But it will still probably be a little weird and a little strange - Wild, you may say - seeing No. 12 in the opposition's sweater.

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