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Staal's focus is helping 'Canes return to playoffs

by Mike G. Morreale /
Bet you don't know what keeps Carolina Hurricanes center Eric Staal up at night.

Well, it isn't the fact he'll be wearing the captain's 'C' right from the get-go as he enters his seventh NHL season; rather, Staal is more concerned about the number of 'W's in his future.

"The biggest thing for me at this stage in my career is wins," Staal told "I want to be in the playoffs. I want to play when it counts, and in order to do that, you've got to play hard for 82 games in the regular season to earn that right. Then, hopefully, have enough to make a run. That's our focus and what we're pushing for."

Staal eventually was going to become team captain at some point. While he'll never openly admit it, those who know the 25-year-old center saw it coming. The fans appreciate his work ethic, players respect him and management thanks their lucky stars they chose him with the second pick of the 2003 Entry Draft.

Ever since his incredible second season in 2005-06, when he produced career highs of 45 goals, 55 assists and 100 points to help the organization claim its first Stanley Cup, he's seen his Hurricanes miss the playoffs three times in the last four seasons.

That's something that just doesn't sit well with Staal, who has been a playoff star -- in 43 games he has 19 goals and 43 points.
"It's about getting back to the playoffs," Staal said. "That's the main focus and main goal and obviously, for me, I want to contribute offensively. But I never really set any numbers. I want to make sure I'm good at both ends of the rink."

As for his role as captain, Staal is confident in his ability.

"I learned that you have to be professional every single practice and every single game -- not that I wasn't before, but there are a lot more eyes on you," he said. "I've been watching Rod (Brind'Amour) and Ron Francis. When I first entered the League, I watched those guys prepare for practice, prepare for games. Now it's kind of a role reversal. There's going to be younger guys watching me and how I prepare, how I focus and how I tune up for games and practices, so I have to make sure I'm bringing it every single time."

Carolina General Manager Jim Rutherford has little doubt Staal will do just that.

"Eric just needs to be himself because he's a natural leader," Rutherford said. "The advantage he has is he's a gifted player, so anything he says to his team he's able to go on the ice and back it up. He can lead on and off the ice and he's been fortunate that he's been in an organization that had two great captains when he was just starting out in Ron Francis and Rod Brind'Amour.

"When you're in an organization that has that kind of leadership and character, and you have the character he has, it's a pretty easy transition to take over the leadership role."

Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice feels the timing is right to have Staal begin a season as captain for an organization in transition.

"He's at the perfect age to relate to players on this team because of his success," Maurice said. "He knows and is comfortable around the older guys on this team, but he's young enough to relate to the kids, as well."

This season, youth certainly will be served in Carolina. Staal can expect to see youngsters Riley Nash, Brandon Sutter, Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk, Zac Dalpe, Jamie McBain and possibly 2010 first-round pick Jeff Skinner battling for positions. Skinner, the seventh pick in June's draft, made quite an impression at the Traverse City NHL Prospects Tournament earlier this month, tying for the tournament scoring lead.

"There's a transition -- definitely a youth movement since we have a lot of young guys vying for some open slots," Staal said. "There will be a lot of guys pushing; there's been a lot of guys here already trying to show they want to be here. I think we'll be extremely competitive and very tough to play against and I'm excited."

Maurice can sense a comfort level within Staal and knows that will rub off on the young players.

"He has all the respect in the world from his players and his work ethic is excellent so he does all the things that you need your captain to do," Maurice said. "He has to know when to pick his spots to do certain things, but even when he was named captain (Jan. 20), our team had gotten considerably younger."

"The biggest thing for me at this stage in my career is wins. I want to be in the playoffs. I want to play when it counts, and in order to do that, you've got to play hard for 82 games in the regular season to earn that right." -- Eric Staal

Staal likes the fact his team enters the 2010-11 campaign somewhat under the radar in the Southeast Division. The odds-makers have the Washington Capitals penciled in as the division champion for a third straight season, and three highly-respected general managers are taking over in Tampa Bay (Steve Yzerman), Florida (Dale Tallon) and Atlanta (Rick Dudley), which has given those clubs increased publicity.

"I would say that (Carolina is under the radar)," Staal said, "but that's fine with us down here. We tend to do that on occasion -- fly a bit under the radar. There are some good teams in our division. But we know the type of game we can play and it's all about proving it on the ice, so that's what matters. I think we have a good group of core players who are still young and very good, a great goaltender (Cam Ward), and some young guys ready to step in. Feel free to throw us in the mix with all those teams."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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