It’s not a question the Carolina Hurricanes were planning on having to answer.
But after Tuesday night in Buffalo, the Canes will be searching for how to replace Jordan Staal in their lineup for what may be the foreseeable future.
In an unfortunate and unavoidable freak play late in the third period of a rather meaningless exhibition match, Staal got tangled up with the Sabres’ Josh Gorges. He slumped to the ice and had to be helped off by his teammates. Later, he would use crutches while his right leg was immobilized, a bone in the lower portion of it broken.
“I’m concerned, for sure,” head coach Bill Peters said after the game. “He’s a big part of what we’re trying to do here.”
With that big – literally big at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds – piece now sidelined, the question arises of how to replace him.
The answer is complicated and still to be determined, but, in essence, it can’t be done – at least not with a single person.
“We’re going to have to do it collectively,” Eric Staal said Wednesday after practice. “It’s not going to be one person because there’s not many that can do what he does. He’s a big, big man that’s tough to play against. We’re going to have to have other guys step up collectively to play those minutes and gain some experience from that.”
Since being acquired from Pittsburgh in a draft-day trade in the summer of 2012, Jordan has been a staple in the Hurricanes’ lineup. He played in all 48 games during the shortened season of 2012-13, and he was one of just two players to skate in all 82 of the Canes’ games in 2013-14.
He plays the big minutes. He matches up against the opponents’ best players. He is an important element of the team’s power play, and he’s arguably one of the best penalty killers in the league.
“It opens up opportunities for various players,” Peters said after practice on Wednesday. “We need someone to take his minutes on the power play. We need somebody else to take his minutes on the PK. We’ll probably need Jay Mac (McClement) to take a lot more D-zone draws than we originally thought, but you know what? We have enough guys, and if we have the mindset that we can do it by committee, we’ll get the job done.”
Five-on-five, the team will have to find someone who can man the second-line center position. Could it be 21-year-old Victor Rask? He’s been commended recently for his tournament-best nine point performance in Traverse City and play in the preseason thus far, but he’s yet to play a game in the NHL.
“Right now I feel pretty good, but it’s just exhibition games,” Rask said after practice on Wednesday. “The real games are a lot different. I’m here to learn and do my best.”
Could it be 19-year-old Elias Lindholm who might project as a center but is currently slotted at right wing? Lindholm centered Jeff Skinner and Jiri Tlusty in Wednesday’s exhibition match in New York. Could that be a viable long-term solution?
“It’s going to be determined on how he plays. Everyone is still in the early phase of training camp and the exhibition season. Nash is in competition with Rask. And where does Jay McClement fit in?” Peters said. “All those questions that we have will be answered in these next five games.”
How many answers the Canes will need and for how long they will need them will be determined once Jordan is evaluated further by team doctors in Raleigh.
Until then, he waits, and the team waits.
“He’s doing OK. I talked to him this morning a little bit,” Eric said Wednesday afternoon. “He’s not doing a lot of moving, but he’s in OK spirits.”
A year-and-a-half ago, Jordan could only watch as Eric writhed in pain on the ice in the World Championship, having been dangerously wiped out from knee-on-knee contact.
Tuesday night, Eric had to watch from the stands as Jordan laid on the ice in visible agony.
“It’s a risk every time you put your equipment on and go out onto the ice. We’re not the only sport,” Eric said. “It can happen. It’s part of the game, but it’s frustrating none the less. You move and move forward, and that’s what we’re going to do as a team, and that’s what he’s going to do as an individual.
“You can’t really describe the frustration. It’s difficult. But sulking and being sorry about it isn’t going to help your or anyone else around you. I know Jordan is treating it that way,” Eric continued. “It’s unfortunate because I know how hard he trained this summer and how hard he worked to be in top shape. He was in great condition for this season, and it was just one of those freak plays that happened.”
As difficult as the answer may be, the Canes will find one and press on.
“It’s a tough pill for him right now, but you have to rebound and pick yourself back up,” Eric said. “He’ll do that, and we’ll do that as a team.”