It didn’t happen in the eighth spot of the 2012 NHL Draft.
But, the Carolina Hurricanes got their man.
The Canes acquired forward Jordan Staal from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for forward Brandon Sutter, defensive prospect Brian Dumoulin and the eighth overall selection in this year's draft.
“This is a major hockey deal,” said Jim Rutherford, Carolina’s president and general manager. “We’re getting an elite player, a guy that, in my opinion, could be a superstar in this league.”
At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, Staal adds characteristics the Hurricanes were desperately searching for: size, grit and an elite offensive upside. He can play a strong two-way game, he can be a weapon on the power play and he is a one of the best penalty killers in the league. He's a proven winner, as he hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2009. His bloodlines aren’t too shabby, either.
Just 23 years of age, Staal has amassed 431 National Hockey League games and 248 points (120g, 128a). He is a career plus-player at plus-53, having recorded a positive plus/minus rating in five of his six seasons.
In 2011-12, Staal recorded a career-high 50 points (25g, 25a), despite playing in just 62 games. In the Penguins’ first-round playoff match-up with the Philadelphia Flyers, Staal led his team in scoring with 9 points (6g, 3a) in just six games.
“He’s only 24 years old,” Rutherford said. “He’s still got an upside yet, and I’d expect those numbers would go up.
“I believe this improves our team. You name me two or three other center-ice men that are like Jordan Staal. You just can’t find them,” Rutherford said. “He can skate and play the game in both ends of the rink. He can go into buildings like New Jersey and Philadelphia that are tough buildings to play in, and he can be the leader in those games instead of waiting to see how the game’s going to go.
“We’ve added a player that’s very, very hard to acquire at any time.”
So hard that, of course, it involved giving up a prized player in Sutter, who Rutherford continuously mentioned as a great player and person. The Carolina GM said that Sutter has a bright future ahead of him and is a perfect fit for Pittsburgh in their now-vacant third-line center position.
“We’re losing one of the best two-way centers in the league. That’s hard,” he said. “When you get into a deal like this, you usually end up giving someone you don’t want to give.
“At the same time, we see Jordan Staal as an elite player.”
The Penguins reportedly felt the same way. News broke on Thursday evening that Staal had rejected the team’s long-term contract offer, allegedly worth $60 million over 10 years. Pens General Manager Ray Shero then looked to deal the Thunday Bay, Ontario native who is due to become an unrestricted free agent in July of 2013.
According to Rutherford, a couple of other teams were in the mix to make the Staal acquisition when Shero contacted him.
“I hadn’t talked to Ray all week,” said Rutherford, who arrived in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. “I was aware of the rumors going on.”
Rutherford said that Shero called him at 4:20 p.m. on Friday. The two met in his office, going back and forth with proposals.
The deal was finally reached at 6:45 p.m., just about 15 minutes before the draft began.
“We got to a deal we were both comfortable with,” Rutherford said.
Though the lack of having Staal locked into a long-term contract admittedly concerned Rutherford, he was confident the team will be able to reach an agreement – something that they expect to begin working on in July.
“We’ll figure out a way to keep him,” Rutherford said.
That might not be too hard, either. The Staal family has not-so-secretly expressed interest in playing on the same team together. Jordan will now join older brother Eric in Raleigh. Both were selected second overall in the their respective draft years – Eric in 2003 and Jordan in 2006.
Whether the two skate on the same line together in Carolina remains to be seen. That will be a decision that head coach Kirk Muller will make, Rutherford said. Losing Sutter could potentially complicate this plan, since the team now lacks a proven shutdown center. But Rutherford said that if Jeremy Welsh – who the organization thinks highly of – can step into the third-line center role, the two Staal brothers could play on the same line. Eric would move to the wing, something he has done successfully in Olympic play.
While the two brothers will be united together on the ice come training camp, they were with one another in a different place on Friday: Jordan’s wedding. Talk about an emotional day for the Staal family. Rutherford said he has yet to speak with Jordan (or Eric, for that matter) about the move.
“I left a message right after it was announced, and I said I didn’t expect him to call me back for a few days,” he said.
Ultimately, the Canes got their man. Staal had been on the team’s short list as an elite forward they’d like to acquire, and as the first round of the 2012 NHL Draft drew nearer, the team sealed the deal in what is sure to be one of the biggest trades in franchise history.
“In some ways, this was not an easy trade to make,” Rutherford said. “But in other ways, it’s one we can get real excited about.”