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DeCock: Eric Staal has to get fans back on his side

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com
Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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RALEIGH It wasn’t anything Eric Staal said Tuesday, as he autopsied the Carolina Hurricanes’ failure for the fifth straight time as captain, that touched on the real problem. It was something he said Thursday night, after a heartless, soulless loss to the Washington Capitals that encapsulated every complaint fans have about this team.

“Whether people think that or not, I’m out there competing as hard as I can,” Staal said.

So there are no secrets here. Staal is aware the fans aren’t happy with what they perceive as a lack of effort and leadership, correctly or incorrectly, and he acknowledged Tuesday there’s work to be done to rebuild that relationship.

“For me, personally, I’m just as frustrated with what’s gone on here, this year and the lockout year,” Staal said. “The pressure’s on, but I enjoy that. I think anytime you start winning and get back in the win column, which I think we can do, it will all be forgotten.”

There’s no getting around it: just like the Hurricanes aren’t getting it done, Staal isn’t getting it done. He carries a salary-cap hit of $8.25 million, tied for fifth in the NHL. That’s superstar money, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin money. At this point in his career, it’s clear Staal is a good player, a very talented one, but not a superstar.

He’s not alone. Staal, his brother Jordan and Alex Semin were paid $22.25 million this season and combined for 58 goals, still better value than the $6.6 million Cam Ward was paid for a 3.06 goals-against average and .898 save percentage.

If the Hurricanes decide to move Staal, they’ll get something for him. There are too many teams in the NHL that would like to have a player like that, or exchange their own similarly restless star for another – the Ottawa Senators are having a familiar debate right now over Jason Spezza.

But Staal and the Hurricanes have come too far down this road together to part ways now. It’s not time to give up yet, even if fans would accept his departure. (It could be worse: Ward’s exit would be downright celebrated at this point.)

There are factors that are out of Staal’s control and will continue to be out of his control: Who his linemates are and how they perform. The coaching staff. The style of play. The unrealistic expectations created by his contract. But there are many factors he does control, and it’s imperative he grasps the opportunity he has this summer to make the most of them.

He has to come back this fall in the best shape of his life, beyond anything he has approached in his career. If that means getting out of Thunder Bay to work with Gary Roberts or someone like that, so be it. With no knee injury to worry about this summer, he must leave no doubt about his physical condition.

And he has to embrace exerting the same effort at both ends of the ice. It’s no coincidence he played some of his best offensive hockey in recent years shortly after Kirk Muller took over with Staal mired in the worst slump of his career. Muller told him not to worry about offense, just go out and set an example by working hard. That has to be the mantra going forward.

Staal may be right: Get the team to the postseason and the fans will be back on his side. The only way to find out is if he does everything in his power to make it happen. And that starts this summer, both physically and mentally.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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