THUNDER BAY -- It’s been a trying five seasons for Eric Staal and the Carolina Hurricanes.
A team built on promise, one that won a Stanley Cup in 2006, the Hurricanes have been playoff outsiders since 2009. It’s starting to grind on their 29-year-old captain, who said it’s tough watching 16 other teams compete for the Stanley Cup year in and year out.
He makes no excuses.
“It was disappointing, no question. We just didn’t get off to the start we needed and seems like now, in this day and age, if you’re behind, it’s tough to climb back. We had some difficult moments and tough injuries and just couldn’t quite get it all together,” said Staal on Tuesday night before taking to the ice for the annual Thunder Bay Kings alumni game at the Tournament Centre.
The Canes, who finished seventh in the Metropolitan Division with a 36-35-11 record, cleaned house after the season ended, parting ways with longtime general manager Jim Rutherford, replacing him with hall-of-famer Ron Francis.
Within weeks Francis fired coach Kirk Muller and brought in Bill Peters, a former assistant with the Detroit Red Wings.
Staal is hopeful it’s the jumpstart the franchise needs to turn its woes around, creating a fresh outlook for the team. And while the pressure will still be there under the new regime to make the playoffs and find post-season success, the new approach might be the springboard to get them there.
It’s not like the Hurricanes aren’t blessed with talent. In addition to Staal and his younger brother Jordan, Carolina boasts the likes of Jeff Skinner up front and Cam Ward in net, the basic building blocks any team needs to succeed.
“When you have new leaders and different people up top, it can change the outlook a little bit and hopefully we’ll have a different outlook and everyone kind of responds,” Staal said. “We’re looking forward to getting started with the new coach and going from there.”
Staal, who suffered a serious knee injury at last year’s World Hockey Championship that likely cost him a spot on Canada’s Olympic team, was the subject of trade rumours after the Hurricanes season ended, many pundits openly questioning whether or not management should blow up the team and start a rebuild from the ground up.
He maintained Tuesday he’s happy in Carolina.
“I want to win, I want to be in the playoffs. I know my career isn’t going to be forever. I want to be back in the playoffs to have a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup and I haven’t been in a while,” he said.
Staal is quick to shoulder his share of the blame – but not all of it.
“Partly it has to do with the way I need to be better on the ice. But also as a group we need to be better.
“I don’t want to be anywhere where no one wants me. I know that I had some good conversations going into the summer with Ron Francis and obviously the new coach. I’m excited and optimistic with the group that we have that we’ll be able to get back to where we want to be.”
Excluding the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, Staal put up his lowest goal (21) and point (61) totals since 2003-04, his rookie season.
Coming off the injury, he said he found it tough to connect with the usual pace of his game until December or January rolled around.
“Obviously by that time with the Olympic selections it was a little bit late and I didn’t get that call. But for the most part I got better as the season goes on,” he said.
It’s all about getting off to a good start, he added.
“This summer I’ve been training real hard and am just excited for next year.”
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