Carolina coach Paul Maurice
still remembers an 18-year-old Eric Staal
trying to find his way in the NHL.
"I remember when he came in as an 18-year-old and right from the beginning of training camp when he would take the puck to the middle of the ice, he would almost get by people," Maurice said. "You could see it. You could see that he was 20 pounds -- 20 pounds of leg strength -- from being able to do those things."
Well, Staal no longer "almost gets by" anybody. If Carolina's No. 1 center wants to get around somebody, more often than not it happens. As a result, Staal has become the focal point for the Hurricanes, asked to carry the franchise on the broad shoulders of his 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame.
Just 24, Staal already owns a Stanley Cup ring -- he scored 28 points in Carolina's 25-game march to the 2006 title -- and now finds himself in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second time in four years, once again leading the team offensively with 14 points in 16 games as the Canes returned to Carolina for Games 3 and 4 against the Penguins.
Now he will be leaned on even more heavily as the Hurricanes try to climb out of a 2-0 hole in this best-of-7 series against the favored Penguins.
No matter how the series turns out, there is no denying the impact that Staal has had since he was the second pick in the 2003 Entry Draft -- one pick after current Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
Staal scored two of his nine playoff goals in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Bruins to pass Ron Francis
for the franchise lead in scoring. At that moment, Staal had 40 points in 36 playoff games. Francis, now the associate coach of the Hurricanes, piled up 39 points in 62 playoff games.
"It's very neat," Staal told NHL.com. "There've been a lot of very good hockey players that have played with this organization and played in some good playoff runs and championship teams, so it's a nice accomplishment for me and, hopefully, there are many more playoffs and many more years to come."
Maurice says that should not be an issue on either count. He believes Staal has yet to reach his prime as a player.
"He's growing as he is becoming a more physically powerful player," Maurice said. "I do think the change in the rules has helped a player like him. Everybody said it would help the smaller guy, but I think it really benefits the big man, because you can't stop a big man sometimes. The big question is how good is he going to be when he hits his prime because he is still growing.“
So when will Staal's prime be?
"Hopefully, the ages of 26 through 42," Maurice said
Asked if he would like to still be coaching Staal when the franchise center is in the twilight of his career, the coach gave a small chuckle.
"I'll just buy season tickets if I'm not coaching him," he said.
But Maurice, who coached Staal for 20 games as a rookie before he was let go, already has a litany of memories provided by Staal, especially after he was re-hired to coach the 'Canes in early December.
"He's been impressive to watch," Maurice said.
Just consider some of the numbers.
In five regular seasons, Staal has missed all of one game -- late in his rookie season, no less -- and has produced at a prodigious pace.
He scored just 11 goals as a rookie, but has already reached the 40-goal plateau twice and topped 30 goals on two other occasions. He has 358 points in 409 regular-season games. This season, he was a plus-15 after being a cumulative minus-22 in his first four NHL seasons
But those who've played with him say Staal is about more than just numbers. Staal has grown into a leader on the ice and in the dressing room. He will likely be the Hurricanes' next captain, once 38-year-old Rod Brind'Amour
decides to hang up the skates.
"He's been great for this team and the franchise," forward Sergei Samsonov
told NHL.com. "He does everything. He's the guy you rely on when the times are tough -- especially in the playoffs. His play speaks for itself. He kills penalties, he plays on the power play, he's a big, strong man and he's physical."
"He's willing to do anything he can to help the team win. That just shows how mature this guy is."