When Eric Staal is on his game, he is one of the NHL's best offensive players and the man who makes the Carolina Hurricanes go. When he's less than his best, as he was for much of 2013-14, Staal's lack of productivity puts Carolina's attack on life support.
Staal was the fifth-highest paid player in the League last season with a salary of $9.25 million; his cap charge was $8.25 million, according to CapGeek. But he had his worst full-season offensive totals (20 goals, 41 assists and a minus-13 rating in 79 games) since 2003-04, his rookie season. For a player on whom the Hurricanes rely in nearly every on-ice situation, those numbers translated into a 36-35-11 record and a 13th-place finish in the Eastern Conference, their fifth straight non-playoff season.
New coach Bill Peters expects his captain to bounce back this season.
"He's huge," Peters said. "He's a guy I'm going to lean on in a big way. We're going to use him on the power play, obviously, and we talked about how he will lead offensively, and on the penalty kill and 5-on-5. He's a leading player in our game and he's a guy we're going to count on in all different areas."
One key to a revival by Staal is a faster start; he scored three goals in his first 18 games in 2013-14. General manager Ron Francis blamed the sluggish start on an injury sustained during the 2013 World Championships and the Hurricanes are hoping the core muscle surgery Staal underwent in late July will not hinder his preparations for the upcoming season.
At 29 and with two years left on his contract, this season could be a crossroads for Staal. Since being named captain in January 2010, the Thunder Bay, Ontario, native has seen his production diminish and the Hurricanes fail to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Though he's a member of the Triple Gold Club, his last championship came with Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
The good news for Staal is that the Hurricanes remain committed to the player who was so instrumental in their 2006 Stanley Cup triumph. He is still with the team despite trade rumors, still wears the "C" despite demotion rumors and will still lead the power play despite scoring one man-advantage goal last season.
Perhaps the organization's confidence in him will help Staal restore his own. Staal can still be a world-class center, as he showed when he scored 18 goals and had 53 points in 48 games in 2012-13 while playing with current linemates Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty. Staal also led the Hurricanes with four game-winning goals, maybe the most important stat for a player who is still the heartbeat of the team.
Most important for the Hurricanes as they try to end their playoff drought is for Staal to be a difference maker again.
"We've got to find a way to grind out points even on nights we don't have our A-game," Peters said. "In those situations when the game's on the line, [Staal] is going to be a guy who can make the difference for us."