The Canes inevitably clean out their lockers every year, but this time around it’s happening a lot sooner than anyone hoped for or expected as recently as a week ago.
After playing their best hockey of the season down the stretch, the team finally ran out of gas over the last four games, only getting one of the two wins they needed to prevail in the division and get into the playoffs for the first time since winning it all two years prior.
It doesn’t get much more disappointing than losing the divisional lead on the last day after holding it for all but a few days during the season. For the Canes, however, the real regret is in what could have been.
”I think anyone in the east has a legitimate chance to get to the Stanley Cup Finals, and we felt we were no different,” said Eric Staal, who was stellar after the All-Star break. “We would have been the third seed with home ice and probably had a good chance of moving forward, and you never know when you get in the playoffs with the way we had been playing. It was a good opportunity for us.”
“The frustrating thing is, yeah, we’re looking at the ninth seed, but just talking to some the guys we had as good a chance as anybody to come out of the east and I really liked our team the way we were playing,” said Justin Williams. “We missed out on the playoffs, but we also missed out on competing for the big prize, which we had an opportunity to win.”
As disheartening as the ending to the season was, it’s understandably difficult to look back on some of the positives of 2007-08. There were several, however, and a few of the team’s young players took major strides in their development that will only be beneficial next season.Staal finished the season as the team leader with 38 goals, 44 assists and 82 points while being the only player to play all 82 games in another injury-riddled season in Carolina. Having only missed one game in his entire career during his rookie season, this season he became the Canes’ all time leader with 254 consecutive games played.
Two of those players, Eric Staal and Tim Gleason, underwent their exit interviews with President and General Manager Jim Rutherford on Monday morning – the first of two such days of talks.
Staal, still only 23 years old, scored 34 points over his last 23 games, a pace that would have given him a league-best 121 if maintained for an entire season.
”I thought he was probably one of the most dominating players in the league over the last 30 games,” said coach Peter Laviolette. “He was consistent on both ends of the ice. He was the guy who led a team that played well. He’s developed into a very good hockey player. He’s a type of player that’s a pleasure to coach.”
It’s no coincidence that Staal’s strong finish started on February 14th, the same day that captain Rod Brind’Amour was lost for the season with a torn ACL on the game’s first shift. Staal stepped seamlessly into Brind’Amour’s vacant skates, excelling not only on the score sheet but also in more prominent penalty killing and leadership roles.
“Anytime you get a guy like Rod Brind’Amour who goes down with an injury that severe it’s tough and we just needed everyone to bring a little bit extra and I was no different,” said Staal, who will again represent Canada at this summer’s World Championships. “I needed to step up my game a little bit more and I was counted on more for the penalty kill and the power play. I really wanted that opportunity and I wanted that challenge.”
Gleason, himself only 25, also delivered after being given a bigger role this season. Very durable like Staal, having only missed two games due to the violent flu outbreak that the team experienced on two separate occasions, Gleason formed half of the team’s top shutdown defensive pairing along with partner Bret Hedican. That tandem would be instrumental in limiting the opposing team’s top forwards down the stretch.
With Hedican, 37, and fellow defenseman Glen Wesley, 39, without contracts for next year and candidates for retirement, Gleason could suddenly find himself at the forefront of the team’s defensive corps next season and going forward.
“I think rolling in just knowing that could be a possibility is a great opportunity for me and it’s obviously a great opportunity for a couple of guys that might have an opportunity to be here,” said Gleason. “Going into camp I just know I have a job to do and I’ve got to do it right and consistently.”
If does find himself in that situation, he and his teammates can take comfort in that he had an opportunity to learn from a few very good teachers as he attempts to make the playoffs for the first time in what will be his fifth year in the NHL.
”Those guys are great to have around, I respect them, they come to work every day,” said Gleason. “As a younger player I see those guys every single day and I see what they do. They’re composed and just the way they hold themselves is awesome to see every day.