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2011-12-10 at 08:35

Improved play

By Leith Dunick, tbnewswatch staff
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WINNIPEG -- Eric Staal's early-season woes look like they may finally be behind him.

The Carolina Hurricanes captain, who struggled mightily on a team that can't seem to escape the NHL Eastern Conference cellar, is normally about a point-a-game player. This season, however, the 27-year-old is well off that pace.

With just 19 points in 31 outings, including an assist in Carolina's 4-2 loss to the recently transplanted Winnipeg Jets on Friday night, he's treading frozen water toward a 50-point campaign, a number the former 100-point scorer usually hits in January.

The good news is the 27-year-old appears to be turning things around, with seven points in his last five games, more in tune with the output Hurricanes fans are used to seeing from the former Canadian Olympian.

"I'm starting to feel a lot better in the last couple of weeks, even before the coaching change," said Staal, touching on Carolina GM Jim Rutherford's decision last week to fire bench boss Paul Maurice and replace him with the untested, but highly touted, Kirk Muller, himself a former NHL star once drafted immediately behind hall of famer Mario Lemieux in 1984.

"It was definitely a difficult start for me personally. Sometimes you're almost trying too hard because you're wanting it so bad and things aren't going your way and things aren't hitting the back of the net. Then you start pressing and you start doing other things that you normally wouldn't do and I had to kind of take a step back and relax and settle in."

Moved to left wing for a couple of games in an attempt to shake his doldrums, he's back at his natural centre position now, has his groove back and wants to be an impact player all over again.

"The points are starting to come, which is always nice. We've still got a long way to go in the season and hopefully I can get back to where I want to be," he said.

Pundits have speculated for weeks about why Staal is off to such a slow beginning to the 2011-12 season.

It wasn't a stretch to connect it to a hit he laid last season on younger brother Marc, a defenceman with the New York Rangers.
Though the younger Staal finished the year on the ice, during the off-season he began to suffer post-concussion symptoms and has just recently resumed skating on his own, having sat out the entire season to date.

But older brother Eric denies it's weighing on him or the cause of a slump that at one point saw him go seven games without recording a point.

"That really hasn't been an issue," he said. "I talk to him frequently every couple of days and he's getting better, and that's the main thing."

The whispers have also started to suggest Staal, who has 523 career points in 591 games with Carolina, might be on the trading block. The Canes on Friday dealt former Maple Leaf blue-liner Tomas Kaberle to Montreal for fellow defender Jaroslav Spacek, but Staal said he's not paying attention to speculation that might be out there about his own playing future.

"Anytime you're at the bottom of the league in the standings there's going to be talk. But for me I haven't focused on that. I'm just trying to focus on playing well, and I think of late it's gotten a lot better, and keep trying to progress forward."

One person definitely in his corner is Muller, whose early playing career with the New Jersey Devils mirrored much of what his captain has done to date in Carolina.

Even though his offense had taken a hit, Muller said Friday after practice, it's Staal he turned to for on- and off-ice leadership after taking over the coaching reins.

"Staal's been an unbelievable leader so far from what I've seen," Muller said. "He's done everything I've asked. I've asked him to be the hardest working guy out there, have great body language and lead by example.

"The last five games he's been a plus player, he's putting up points and he doesn't care who he plays with. He just wants to jump over the boards. I've been really impressed with him as a leader so far."

For his part, Staal said Muller seems to have quashed any negativity that might have been brewing in the Hurricanes dressing room, at the same time bringing excitement and positive reinforcement back to Raleigh, N.C.

"I think his style of game is a little more aggressive. I think it's a little more up-tempo. I think we're going to be trying to initiate a little bit more and I think obviously a different style of coaching. But I think Kirk, coming into the situation he did, brought a good attitude with good energy and is asking for a lot from the guys," Staal said. 

"We're trying to get better and I think we're making some steps and we'll try to build something here to try to get where we want to be."

 

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