– Eric Staal
has played 578 games in his illustrious career with the Carolina Hurricanes
, and in practically every single one of them he was listed as a center on one of the top two scoring lines.
But with Staal off to a miserable start to this season, sitting dead last in the League with a minus-17 rating, coach Paul Maurice
had a novel idea to try and get his game on track – moving his top center to left wing on a line with Brandon Sutter
and Chad LaRose
"We've seen it work in the Olympics before," Maurice said Wednesday morning prior to the Hurricanes taking on the Montreal Canadiens
at the Bell Centre. "Mind you, that's a lot to be asking Brandon Sutter
to be Sidney Crosby
"At the point where I was at, I was willing to try whatever. When you're minus a bunch and not contributing on the offensive side it's frustrating because you know you can, but it just wasn't happening. It was a different look and it's been pretty good so far." -- Eric Staal
Considering how hockey players are creatures of habit and Staal's stature in the Hurricanes organization, it isn't hard to think he might have bristled at the thought of a position change.
Not so, says Staal.
"At the point where I was at, I was willing to try whatever," Staal said. "When you're minus a bunch and not contributing on the offensive side it's frustrating because you know you can, but it just wasn't happening. It was a different look and it's been pretty good so far."
In two games on Sutter's left wing, Staal has a goal and two assists. Modest as it may be, it represents Staal's first point streak of the season.
"The last two games have been pretty comfortable," he said. "I like playing with Brandon, he brings a lot of speed to the middle of the ice and he's obviously very good in his own end. I think he's got a bit more offense to his game than people give him credit for."
Indeed, perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Staal's move to the wing is Sutter, a young player widely recognized for his defensive skills but who has had little opportunity to play top line minutes during the first three years of his career.
"Some of it is for Eric Staal
, but some of it is also for Brandon Sutter
," Maurice said. "He gets the tough job of going out there to shut down guys every night and he's still managed to score 20 or so a year as a young, young man. So we're also trying to develop Brandon into an elite center in this League and push his minutes up and get him to believe that it's not just defense all the time. So it was for Eric Staal
, but the byproduct here is we're going to push a young, super player into being better."
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While Sutter hasn't gotten on the scoresheet since Staal moved to his left wing, the line has had consistent offensive zone pressure and Sutter's minutes are up significantly in the past two games.
"The first two games have gone well," Sutter said. "We haven't necessarily created a lot of points, but we've gotten a lot of chances. We have to keep it going."
The line represents a difficult match-up for opposing teams because there are two centers who shoot from either side – Sutter is a righty and Staal is a lefty – so the Hurricanes can have a strong side faceoff man no matter where the draw is being held.
"It's one of the primary benefits of that," Maurice said. "Especially as teams now change their focus slightly and look to check (Jeff) Skinner, we get their offensive line playing against Sutter at times. If you can have the puck before they do, over the course of a game that's one of the most frustrating things for an offensive line."
Opposing coaches wouldn't be blamed for shifting their focus to Skinner's line with Tuomo Ruutu
and Jussi Jokinen
– the aptly named Skins and Finns line. They have been carrying the offensive load for Carolina while Staal works to get out of his funk. Skinner has eight points in his last seven games, Ruutu has four goals in his last five games and Jokinen has points in five of his past six games.
But Skinner insists that he is still benefitting from the respect opposing coaches give to Staal.
"He still dominates games for us," Skinner said. "He's playing 20 to 25 minutes a night against the other team's top pairings. That's huge for our line because we get to face a lot of second pairings."
Another popular reason given for Staal's poor start to the season is that his regular right-winger is now wearing another uniform. Montreal's Erik Cole
will be facing his good friend for the first time since leaving to join the Canadiens this past summer as an unrestricted free agent.
The one other time in Staal's career where he didn't play with Cole was in 2008-09, when Cole was traded to the Edmonton Oilers
in the offseason. That year Staal had 28 goals and 22 assists in 65 games before Cole was re-acquired by the Hurricanes in a trade. Those numbers aren't bad by any stretch, but consider that after Cole returned Staal went on an absolute tear, producing 12 goals and 13 assists during his final 17 games.
Staal admits that Cole has been a difficult element to replace.
"He's definitely a part of my success and I think it goes vice versa," Staal said. "I think the speed he brings to the game opened the ice up for my game. Defensemen are a bit intimidated by that speed because he can really burn you if he gets a head of steam down the wing. He's not an easy guy to simulate, but we're continuing to jell together and finding different ways to create offence."
Even if one of those ways is a radical position change this late in his career, Staal is willing to do whatever it takes.