It isn’t a matter of when Eric Staal will move back to center. On the ice, and in his mind, the Carolina Hurricanes captain is officially a left winger. He doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.
“Not right now,” Staal said Friday. “I’m having a lot of fun playing with Jordan. I’ve played center my whole life. It’s a different position on left wing, but when you’re playing with someone with his strengths, it balances and helps my game.”
Staal’s position switch is a big part of the Hurricanes’ success since Jordan Staal’s return – 7-3-2, compared with 10-22-4 without him after Friday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the St. Louis Blues – but just as that recent success raises new questions about the team’s direction, so does Staal’s move from center.
The Hurricanes’ January has apparently convinced new general manager Ron Francis that the Hurricanes aren’t far from contending, the same song-and-dance that Jim Rutherford perpetrated for five postseason-free seasons in a row. Time will tell. In Francis’ partial defense, Bill Peters’ rigor has been impressive, and he has the Hurricanes playing a style that would make them successful if they had more talent.
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Pairing Eric and Jordan Staal has been one of Peters’ most productive moves, with Eric’s moved to left wing to accommodate his brother at center. Eric has nine goals and 11 points in 12 games with Jordan, who has nine points.
The unavoidable question this raises is whether it will make financial sense for the Hurricanes to pay Eric Staal what it will take to keep him in the summer of 2016 if he’s not back at center.
The best NHL teams are built down the middle of the ice: center, defense, goalie. That was the logic of trading for Jordan in the first place, to give the Hurricanes a big, strong 1-2 punch at center. Moving Eric to the wing may make him happy, but it doesn’t make the Hurricanes any better down the middle, especially if they’re not in position to draft Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel this June, either of whom would solve that problem.
The Hurricanes already have almost $13 million tied up on the wing in Jeff Skinner and Alexander Semin. They can’t afford to throw another $9 million at that position.
It’s quite a quandary on several fronts: Staal may be more productive at left wing but have less long-term value to the franchise. And while his recent success has improved his short-term trade value, it’s also hard to envision the Hurricanes “winning” a Staal trade if you subscribe to the theory that a trade benefits most the team that gets the best player.
By the same token, there’s no guarantee he stays when his contract expires, especially if he’s asked to take less than the $8.25 million he’s making now. Staal can’t sign a new contract until July, when his current deal has less than one year to run, and he said there has been no contact by him or his representatives with Francis regarding a potential extension yet – not at all unusual, to be sure.
But with the Hurricanes all but assured of missing the playoffs – they would probably need 59 of the 68 available points remaining – trade rumors will continue to swirl around Staal, by far the Hurricanes’ most desirable asset.
“I’ve been here a long time,” Staal said. “It’s a place that I hold in my heart, and obviously if I was asked differently or it came to that, you cross those bridges when you come to them. As of right now, I’m a member of the Hurricanes and that’s what I’m hoping to be, but you never know what can happen as you move forward.”
So says a forward who has moved, from center to left wing, with uncertain implications for the future.