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Eric Staal looking for fresh start in free agency

Veteran center hoping to re-establish himself as key player

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

Since the interview period for potential unrestricted free agents opened Saturday, Eric Staal has been at his home in Thunder Bay, Ontario, fielding phone calls from, according to agent Rick Curran, "a number of interested teams."

Though some of the bigger names eligible to become unrestricted free agents at noon ET on Friday have been visiting cities they're considering playing in, Staal has stayed home.

"I'm up in Thunder Bay," he said Tuesday. "It's not easy to get anywhere. But I've had some great conversations and it's been different. It's an interesting process."

This is unfamiliar territory for Staal, who played 12 seasons for the Carolina Hurricanes, and for much of that time appeared destined to spend his entire NHL career with them. But with the Hurricanes in rebuilding mode and Staal in the final season of seven-year, $57.75 million contract, he agreed to waive his no-movement clause to accept a trade to the New York Rangers on Feb. 28. 

The opportunity to be teammates with his brother Marc Staal didn't work out as well as anyone hoped. The Rangers lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games in the Eastern Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Eric Staal had zero points, seven shots on goal and a minus-7 rating in the series. 

Now the 31-year-old forward is looking for the right fit on the free agent market to help revive a career on the fade. His 13 goals, 26 assists and 39 points in 2015-16 were his lowest regular-season totals since he was a rookie in 2003-04.

"I've had a pretty solid career, but I feel like I have lots of hockey life left," Staal said. "As difficult as the last two years have been in Carolina, now for me it's about a new opportunity and a chance to, hopefully, catch on with a good group and I'm hoping to kind of reestablish myself or just be the player I know I can be."

Staal won the Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes in 2006 and has played in the NHL All-Star Game four times. It wasn't that long ago that he would have been one of the most highly sought players if he had entered free agency. But he's been overshadowed the past few days by speculation about where Steven Stamkos, Milan Lucic, Loui Eriksson, Kyle Okposo and others might sign.

Video: Top Moment: Staal Scores One-Handed

"He's kind of been on the back burner a little bit with the hype of everybody else," NHL Network analyst John MacLean said. 

MacLean, who coached Staal as an assistant in Carolina, believes he can benefit from a change of scenery after playing so long in one place, if he finds the right situation.

"I was surprised it didn't go better for him in New York," MacLean said. "But I think the key with Eric is he has to be in a top-six role. I'm sure his preference is to play center, which you can understand when you play that many years and you're successful. But if he has to move to the wing, I don't think it's a bad thing for him as long as he's in a top-six role. Watching him with New York, they had him on the third line. I believe for him to be successful, and he can be, he needs to be in a top-six role.

"He still is 6-foot-4, skates well and can put up numbers. But I think he needs to be in that role consistently for him to be successful."

MacLean is correct in his assessment that Staal would prefer to play center and a top-six role. Having a chance to win also is a priority over the length of whatever contract he signs. 

"Any player wants to be counted on in a position to succeed," Staal said. "I feel I have some good years left that I can compete at a high level and play against top guys in the League. So I want to have the ability to put myself in a good position. And hopefully the team I end up with feels that I can be a contributor in that role."

Although Staal's postseason experience with the Rangers was brief, he enjoyed getting a taste of playoff hockey again. It was his first since 2009 and the third of his NHL career.

"The feeling Game 1 jumping on the ice and the atmosphere in the building in Pittsburgh, it was phenomenal," he said. "I had goose bumps for a good two or three minutes. Those are the things you want as a player, that excitement, that buildup."

As comfortable as Staal was with the Hurricanes, that kind of excitement was missing his last seven seasons there. That doesn't mean he's completely ruled out returning there, but they've yet to show any interest in bringing him back.

"I'm pretty open to a lot of different things that could potentially happen," Staal said. "But with how it ended there and being traded and the direction they're headed, I'm not sure if I'm someone they're looking at. At the same time I was there basically for my whole career and I love it. It's a great organization, great people, area, so I'm not going to close the door on it. 

"But the feelings have to be both ways and we didn't do a lot of discussion last year, and ultimately ended up being in a trade at the deadline. That's life and I'm OK. I'm happy now and I'm excited for what's next."

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