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Never an Easy Day

by Michael Smith / Carolina Hurricanes
Just because something seems inevitable doesn’t make the reality of it happening any easier.

Ask Carolina Hurricanes General Manager Ron Francis, who calls Eric Staal a friend: “Any time you trade a guy who is the face of your franchise, who has been here a long time and done a lot of good things for the organization on the ice and in the community, it’s never an easy day,” he said. “He was a real pro about it. Unfortunately it’s the crappy part of our business when stuff like this happens.”

Ask head coach of the Hurricanes, Bill Peters, who spent nearly two seasons behind a bench captained by Eric Staal: “You know it’s a possibility, right? But when it happens, it hits you,” he said after his team felt the emotional gut punch in a 5-2 loss to St. Louis. “It’ll hit a little bit more later tonight.”

Ask Jeff Skinner, who played 400 games in the NHL alongside one captain: “It’s tough. He’s meant a lot to this organization. He’s meant a lot to guys personally. He’s meant a lot to me,” he told the broadcast in a first intermission interview. “He’s been a huge part of my career. He’s a great person, and I think you won’t really meet a better guy in the game.”

Ask Eric Staal’s brother, Jordan, who signed a 10-year contract with the Hurricanes in the summer of 2012 in hopes of winning a Stanley Cup championship with his brother: “You never really think about it until it happens, and then it kind of hits you,” he said, graciously speaking with the media on what can only be described as a tough day, just like his brother did countless times. “I know he’s going to a very good team that’s got another brother on there. He’s very excited for the opportunity.”

A Trade Finalized

It was officially announced about an hour prior to puck drop. It had been in the works for some time before that.

“The conversation started intensifying through the day yesterday,” Francis explained. “It kind of heated up this morning and got done just a few hours before the game today.”

The details, which are by now familiar: the Hurricanes acquired forward prospect Aleksi Saarela and two second round draft picks (2016, 2017) in exchange for Eric Staal.

Staal, who signed a seven-year extension with the Hurricanes in 2008, waived his no-trade clause in order for the transaction to be complete.

“I feel thankful that Eric was able to waive the no-move. He didn’t have to do that. He did that in order to allow us to do this,” Francis said. “We feel it gives us some building blocks to continue to move forward in the direction we want to go in.”

With game No. 64 of the 2015-16 regular season drawing closer, good-byes in the locker room were brief but meaningful.

“I knew something was going on with some whispers going through the room,” Jordan said. “I talked to Eric. … A lot of emotions going through the both of us and a lot more for Eric because he’s been here for a long time.”

“We wished him well and got to see him briefly. We were preparing for the game. That was really the long and short of it,” Ron Hainsey said. “We’ll talk to him more – I know I will – later on. But for today, it’s a pretty quick thing when you have a game coming up.”

“Real quick,” Peters said when asked if he had a chance to speak with Staal. He paused, gathered his thoughts and managed three simple words. “It was hard.”

Staal left PNC Arena just before 2 p.m. on Sunday. He’ll be at the Rangers’ morning skate on Monday.

The Why of It

The question of a contract extension for Eric Staal had been a constant this season, even dating back to the summer. That’s when Francis said he began having “good discussions” with Staal and his agent, Rick Curran.

“We talked more in generalities than specifics,” Francis said. “I think in his heart he would have liked to be here. He mentioned to me numerous times that he liked the direction we were going and the young pieces that were coming. He was excited about that.”

The Feb. 29 trade deadline was a drop-dead date of sorts; if the two sides couldn’t agree on a proper extension, conventional thinking said to flip that expiring contract into assets for the future.

The Hurricanes ranked 30th in NHL with an 8-13-4 record following a 5-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils at PNC Arena on Dec. 3. Over the next two-plus months, the Hurricanes posted a 20-10-6 record and the playoff discussion became a bit more regular even if the odds still didn’t quite favor the team; for the first time in a while, they were in the mix.

Francis was patient but knew he couldn’t sacrifice long-term prosperity for the temptation of fleeting success.

“This group has played some really good hockey from December to this point. They’re working hard, and you never want to have to do this,” he explained. “But when you look at the big picture, if we couldn’t get comfortable on a contract term, you can’t lose an asset like that for nothing. It’s too important to the franchise moving forward.”

Francis has a vision for this franchise, the end goal of which is to construct a perennial playoff club. In trading Staal, an unrestricted free agent-to-be, Francis gained a 19-year-old Finnish prospect who has competed and medaled in various international tournaments for his country and two second-round draft picks; the Hurricanes have now stockpiled 12 picks in the first three rounds of the 2016 and 2017 NHL Drafts (three first-round picks, four second-round picks and five third-round picks).

“At the stage he was in his career and the stage we are as a franchise and what we’re trying to build, it was difficult for us to get comfortable with a longer term. That’s really what it came down to,” Francis said. “I don’t think he was asking for the world. His parameters were fair. I don’t think he’ll have a hard time getting it on July 1 from somebody. It just didn’t fit for us for where we are now and where we’re going.”

The Past

Eric Staal was drafted second overall by Carolina in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, and his transformation from “that skinny kid from Thunder Bay” into “a man we will always be proud to have represented the Carolina Hurricanes” is written about beautifully here.

In between, Staal developed into one of the most important players in Hurricanes history.

Staal leaves the team as the Hurricanes’ all-time leader in games played (909), goals (322), assists (453), points (775), hat tricks (13), penalty minutes (674), power-play goals (105), shorthanded goals (16) and game-winning goals (47), some marks of which are also franchise first-, second- and third-bests. He is the franchise all-time leader in playoff scoring (43 points) and led the team with 28 points en route to the Hurricanes’ 2006 Stanley Cup championship. He’s a four-time NHL All Star, an All-Star MVP and the 23rd member of the “Triple Gold Club” (Olympic gold, World Championship, Stanley Cup).

“He’s done everything you want for a guy who’s a first-round pick, second overall. He’s had a big impact on this club,” Peters said before Sunday’s game, before the trade was made official. “I have nothing but respect for the guy.”

Peters coached a Staal-captained team for 145 games. He recalled a time in his office early in his tenure in which Staal answered a question “so accurate and so 100 percent correct” that he knew what kind of player he had.

“He was a great captain for me,” Peters said.

The Future

Life without No. 12 began abruptly for the Hurricanes, who attempted to muster up the emotional energy required to play a 60-minute hockey game against a team seeking revenge for a 5-0 defeat the night prior.

A day away from the rink before Monday’s trade deadline followed by an afternoon flight to New Jersey is perhaps a more proper adjustment period.

“We’ve had a few years together here. We had some good times and some bad, and obviously things haven’t worked like we thought they might,” Jordan said. “Things change, and that’s the way it goes. Obviously we didn’t want it this way. We’re going to keep moving forward, and I’m going to keep moving forward to keep trying to be the player I can be for this team.”

“It will be tough on all those guys in the room. He was their captain, and a lot of these young guys that came in looked up to him over the years. Now he’s no longer there,” Francis said. “There’s certainly going to be an adjustment period, but we feel we have a lot of good character guys in that locker room and a lot of good pieces. It’s a chance for them to take another step forward.”

The Hurricanes won’t have another player wear the “C” on his chest for the remainder of the season. The 14th captain in franchise history will be named prior to the 2016-17 campaign.

In New York, Staal will continue to wear the No. 12 in his quest to capture the second Stanley Cup of his career.

“This guy’s had a great career, and it’s not over. That’s the thing that’s exciting for him,” Peters said. “It’ll be a little kick in the gut, a little empty feeling. And then when he gets to New York, I think he’s going to be energized with the chance to win the Cup. That’s why you play.”

“He’s given his heart and soul to this team. For it to end the way it did was unfortunate, but it’s a business. We both understand that,” Jordan said. “Hopefully down the road we’ll find a way to get together and win like we wanted.”

It may have seemed inevitable, and it may be a business. But that doesn’t make it easy.

Michael Smith
MICHAEL SMITH is the Web Producer for the Carolina Hurricanes.

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