RALEIGH, N.C. -- Eric Staal has dressed and played in hundreds of games at PNC Arena over the years. Thursday will mark just the second time he will do so as a visitor.
Picked second overall by the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2003 NHL Draft, Staal played in 909 games with the club over 12 seasons, leading the franchise to its only Stanley Cup in 2006. He used to make the commute to the rink almost daily.
But pulling up in a bus with a different team still seems a bit weird to the 32-year old centerman, who scored 322 goals and chipped in 453 more assists in a Hurricanes uniform before he was dealt to the New York Rangers at last season's trade deadline.
"The first time was kind of whirl-windish because of the trade deadline and the season finishing," Staal said. "This time, being with this group since the start of the year, and kind of establishing what we have going on as a team, it's been fun to be back here."
Among the most enjoyable parts of the trips back to the area are the chances to reconnect with the people other than players and coaches who he developed relationships with over the years; arena workers, security guards, zamboni drivers and Hurricanes public relations staffers among them.
Spending more than a decade with one team allows one to learn about those people away from the rink, and checking in with them is something he said he has done, and will continue to do every time he returns.
"You want to make sure you see everybody and say hi. So many people that I really care about and have remained close with over this time," Staal said. "It's been fun to see everyone's face and see how everybody is doing, catch up a little bit, people's families. It's pretty cool, it's nice to be able to do that."
Ultimately, Staal said he's focused on putting a positive finish on a road trip that has so far been difficult for the Wild. Minnesota has lost its past two games and is 1-3-0 on a four-game trip that ends Thursday.
The Wild trails the Chicago Blackhawks by one point in the Central Division standings, although it has one game in hand.
"There's definitely things about the area that I have a lot of familiarity with," Staal said. "When you're at the hotel and doing different stuff with this group, it's a different feeling. But you do your best to remain focused on what we need to accomplish, and that's getting the points."
In one of practice's most perplexing twists, Wild forward Erik Haula hit the ice in a black defenseman's jersey and skated with the blueliners for the entirety of the session.
Apparently, there isn't a position change in the cards quite yet, however. Defenseman Marco Scandella was granted a maintenance day, and the group needed someone to fill his place.
Video: Wild Practice in Carolina
"Bruce came to me before practice and we talking about who would play [defense]," Haula said. "I guess [assistant coach Scott Stevens] thinks I can play defense. So [Boudreau] was like, 'OK, you can play [defense] today.'"
Boudreau said afterward that Stevens has praised Haula's speed while skating backwards, thinking aloud that "he could be a defenseman one day."
That day, at least for an hour or so, was Wednesday.
Video: Bruce Boudreau Practice in Carolina
"I don't think he's going to play there ... I hope," Boudreau said.
Scouting the Hurricanes
Carolina has at least one point in six of its eight games this month, posting a 3-2-3 record over that span. The Hurricanes are in the middle of a three-game homestand that began Tuesday with a 3-2 overtime loss to the New York Islanders. Jeff Skinner is the club's leading scorer, posting 23 goals and 54 points this season. Rookie Sebastian Aho is in the midst of a breakout campaign, scoring 20 goals and tallying 38 points after being selected in the second round of the 2015 NHL Draft.