RALEIGH, N.C. -- Carolina Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis remained non-committal in the year leading up to the potential free agency of captain Eric Staal.
For months, Francis spoke only of having a "good dialogue" with Staal and his agent, Rick Curran.
But if there was a clue about the general manager's intent in the days prior to the NHL Trade Deadline, it came down to the vision set forth when he became GM in April 2014. He has been unwavering in his commitment to building a team that can sustain success through drafting and developing players. With Staal's production declining in recent years, the 31-year-old center didn't fit into the Hurricanes' future.
Staal was traded to the New York Rangers on Sunday, where he will join younger brother, defenseman Marc Staal. The Hurricanes received second-round picks in the 2016 and 2017 NHL Drafts, along with Finnish prospect Aleksi Saarela, selected by the Rangers in the third round of the 2015 draft.
"At the stage he is in his career and the stage we are in as a franchise, what we are trying to build, I think it was difficult for us to get comfortable with a longer term," Francis said. "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. Thankfully, Eric was willing to waive the [no-movement clause]. He didn't have to do that. He did it to allow us to do this. We feel it gives us some building blocks to move forward in the direction we wanted to go."
Staal and Francis were teammates in Carolina in 2003-04, when Staal was a rookie and Francis, then the Hurricanes captain, was in the final season of his 23-year career. Francis helped put NHL hockey on the map in Carolina when he led the Hurricanes to the 2002 Stanley Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings. Staal helped the Hurricanes take the next step, leading Carolina in scoring during the Stanley Cup Playoffs when it defeated the Edmonton Oilers to win the Stanley Cup in 2006.
Video: Jordan Staal: "We gave it all we got"
"Any time you trade a guy who is the face of your franchise - he's been here a long time and done a lot of good things for your franchise - it's never an easy day," Francis said. "We have a friendship on the side as well, which makes it even more difficult. But he was a real pro about it."
Francis said he began discussions with the Rangers on Saturday evening, but the talks heated up Sunday morning. He approached Staal roughly 90 minutes before the start of Carolina's game against the St. Louis Blues on Sunday to have him sign the paperwork allowing the Hurricanes to complete the trade.
Although Staal now has the opportunity to play with Marc, he leaves behind Jordan Staal, who came to the Hurricanes in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the summer of 2012. Each player had already won the Stanley Cup (Jordan with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009), and the brothers often spoke of doing it again as teammates in Carolina. When Eric's long-rumored departure became a reality, Jordan's disappointment was evident.
"It wasn't the way we envisioned, for myself coming here," Jordan said after a 5-2 loss to St. Louis on Sunday. "We wanted to win. We gave it all we had to get this team where we wanted to go.
"We understand that when things don't go well, things change. It's something we will have to swallow. I'm sure Eric is looking forward to playing in New York on a good team and having a chance to hopefully win the Cup."
Francis anticipated the ripple effect the trade would have on the brothers.
"There's no question it will be tough on Jordan and it will be tough on Cam Ward," Francis said. "They've been teammates for a long time. It will be tough on the guys in the room. He was their captain. A lot of these young guys who have come in have looked up to him over the years, and now he's no longer there. There's certainly going to be an adjustment period."
Video: Thank You, Eric Staal
Perhaps making matters more complicated for Francis was Eric Staal's unwavering desire to stay with the Hurricanes. He has been Carolina's captain for parts of seven seasons, none of which have resulted in a playoff berth. He believed the Hurricanes were playing their best hockey in years under second-year coach Bill Peters.
"In his heart, he would have liked to be here," Francis said. "He mentioned to me numerous times that he liked the direction we're going. It's never easy to have this to deal with while you're trying to play the game."
At times this season, it appeared Staal felt the weight of his uncertain future. He had 10 goals and 33 points through 63 games with the Hurricanes.
"I'm sure that had some effect on him," Francis said. "I think this change will be a good opportunity for him. He will go to New York. It's a good team. He will get to play with some players who have had a lot of success. He can just play the game. He doesn't have to bear the burden of wearing the 'C' and being the leader."
The Hurricanes responded to a slow start this season with a 20-10-6 stretch that roughly corresponded to moving Staal from the left wing back to center, the position he has played for most of his career.
"Since then we've been a much better team," Hurricanes alternate captain Ron Hainsey said. "He's such a presence when he plays there. He created a ton of chances. Obviously he was snake-bitten a tad on getting them to go in, but his overall game was positive for us. It's a very large void."
Francis said that Carolina's consecutive losses to the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins this past Thursday and Friday helped his decision to seek a trade.
Video: Jeff Skinner: "He's meant a lot"
"It became more evident as we got closer to the deadline," Francis said. "I wouldn't bet against this group, but it makes it a lot tougher to make the playoffs."
Peters recalled his initial meeting with Staal. Upon accepting his first NHL head coaching job, he sat down with the Carolina captain.
"It was really good," Peters said. "It was in my office, right off the hop. I don't remember what the question was, but his response was so accurate and so 100 percent correct that I knew he was all in. It was impressive. He's been great. He was a great captain for me."
At the end of his post-game press conference Sunday, Peters was asked if he spoke with Staal before he left PNC Arena.
"Real quick," Peters said. Then he pulled his lips together tightly and his voice faltered. "It was hard."