At the end of the 2013-14 season, the fifth straight year in which the Carolina Hurricanes had missed the playoffs, captain Eric Staal
once again faced the media in a haze of disappointment.
He was dejected, and he was blunt.
“I know everybody is frustrated,” he said. “I know our fans are frustrated. Management, staff, players, everyone is. That’s not a secret, and that needs to change.”
He was asked how it could change.
“Bottom line: We’ve just got to get better, all-around.”
Looking inward, he had a series of candid conversations with the team’s new general manager, Ron Francis.
“They were good talks. He was letting me know where he stood and what he expected,” Staal said. “It was a good, honest conversation as far as what I thought our team needs and where we could go.”
Staal changed his diet and his offseason training routine, as he and Jordan worked with a trainer in Connecticut.
“I was actually really loving it. It was a great program, and we were working really hard and seeing results,” he said. “It definitely has made a difference, and I feel good.”
“He’s taken all of those steps to give himself that opportunity to be the player he wants to be and we need him to be,” Francis said.
An unfortunate core muscle injury and subsequent surgery slowed down his summer workouts, but it was something Staal wanted to correct when he had the chance.
“The word ‘surgery’ never sounds good. But it would have been something that would have probably plagued me throughout the season if I didn’t get it fixed,” he said. “I had the opportunity to get it done quickly, and now it’s about rehabbing properly and making sure I’m back to 100 percent for the start of training camp.”
Rehabbing from this injury, Staal said, has already been smoother than recovering from the knee injury he suffered last summer at the World Championship, something that admittedly contributed to a slow start.
“It’s not as tough to overcome as a knee injury,” he said. “The rehab has been a lot easier and a lot better. I’m feeling pretty good already a week after.”
While Staal was in Raleigh in late July to discuss possible courses of action for his injury, he met with head coach Bill Peters.
“He’s got a great plan and a good outlook, and he’s excited about the players we have and being able to put them in situations to succeed. He’s got ideas for what can make our power play and penalty kill better,” Staal said. “You could tell just by talking to him that he was excited about working with the guys that we have and getting the best out of everybody. That’s all you can ask for as a player.”
Hampered by a slow start, Staal posted 61 points (21g, 40a) in 79 games in 2013-14. His shooting percentage was an abnormally low 9.1 percent, and his shorthanded tallies (2) outpaced his power-play goals (1). Even still, he led the team in points and assists, and he recorded 31 points from Dec. 31 on, notching seven multi-point games along the way.
“The one thing you want from your captain is you want him to be your hardest-working guy. He’s got to be in on the forecheck, he’s got to backcheck and he’s got to compete and battle hard in every shift on every night,” Francis said. “The leadership of the team in the locker room doesn’t necessarily come from one guy. It comes from a lot of different areas. I know when I was captain, I leaned on a lot of guys. Roddy was the same way.
“The simplest thing for him to do is just go out and put the effort in and everything else will sort of take care of itself.”
Staal will turn 30 years old near the end of October. In his 10-year NHL career, he’s been to the playoffs twice, winning the Stanley Cup in 2006 and progressing to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009.
“My career isn’t going to be forever, and I want to play in the playoffs,” he said in his last meeting with the media after last season. “I’ve been here a long time. I love it here, and I’ve had success here. I know and believe that we can again, and I can be a part of that.”
With an altered approach to offseason training and a new coach behind the bench, Staal has a fresh outlook on the upcoming season. The ultimate goal, however, remains constant.
“We have to make the playoffs. It’s been too long. It’s been extremely frustrating for us as players and obviously for the fans and people within the organization. We’re going to put pressure on ourselves to do that, to get back there. At the same time, we’re going to start with the process, the work ethic and the details and build from there day-by-day,” he said. “We need to be optimistic, excited and positive, not hanging our heads and worrying about what’s happened in the past, but also being ready to push ourselves and add that pressure to get back to where we need to be.”