For Eric Staal and the Carolina Hurricanes, it was a story of what might have been.
It was an NHL season that started in Finland and finished with seven wins in 10 games. But in between there were just far too many losses and too much ground to make up down the stretch, as the Hurricanes finished two points out a playoff spot.
For Staal, the Carolina captain, it was a difficult result to swallow.
“We felt like we were right there in the mix and we needed to win that last game and we obviously lost to a pretty good team in Tampa,” Staal said early last week.
“But we’ve got some good young players who gained some experience over this last season and we’re expecting better things this year. We’re going to have to get off to a good start … and hopefully we added a few (players) and if we can add a little bit more down the stretch before the season starts and we can get back to the playoffs.”
Carolina GM Jim Rutherford was one of the more active players in the free agent market, adding the likes of Alexei Ponikarovsky, Anthony Stewart and two former Toronto Maple Leafs, defenceman Tomas Kaberle and centre Tim Brent.
The Canes also lost forward Erik Cole, one of Staal’s closest friends on the team, who signed a four-year deal with Montreal.
“But those additions will help,” Staal said. “Stewart had good years last year and Tim Brent had a good first year in Toronto. Ponikarovsky, I think he could be a really good player for us. I think last season he had an up-and-down year being injured, but given the right opportunity, he can play well.
“Obviously Tomas is an all-star player who has been very consistent and very good for a lot of years now in the league. He’s definitely going to help our power play and have that calming influence on our defence, so I’m really excited about that.”
Consistency is right up Staal’s alley.
The 26-year-old Thunder Bay native, whose wife is expecting the couple’s second child, has been model of consistency since his sophomore season, never scoring fewer than 70 points in a campaign, with five 30-goal and two 40-goal seasons under his belt.
Entering his eighth season in Raleigh, N.C., Staal said his role on the team has definitely changed over the years, from a wide-eyed 18-year-old rookie in 2003 taking mentorship from future hall-of-famer Ron Francis and later Rod Brind’Amour, to the guy who’s showing the way to the likes of Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner.
Not that Skinner, whose 31 goals were two behind Staal’s team-leading total, needs much advice on the ice.
“He’s got it figured out pretty good. He sits beside me in the locker room and he’s a real great kid who works extremely hard in practice and in every game,” Staal said. “He’s going to be getting a lot more attention this season. He kind of came in under the radar this season as and 18-year-old.
“But now winning rookie-of-the-year and having that attention it’s going to be different. But he’s going to battle through it because he’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
While Staal’s main goal is to return the Hurricanes to the playoffs, possibly at the expense of younger brother Marc and the New York Rangers, there is one other thing about the upcoming season that has him excited – the return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg.
The transfer of the former Atlanta Thrashers and the rebirth of the Jets means Staal is scheduled to play three times in the Manitoba capital while the Winnipeg squad plays one final season in the Southeast Division.
“It’s nice for everybody here in Thunder Bay. For me it’s a little bit longer of a flight from Raleigh. But it’s pretty cool. There’s another team (in Canada) and it’s going to be a great year for the Jets there. Hopefully we can get a lot of family and people from Thunder Bay coming out to check out the games, and I’m looking forward to playing the first game up there, for sure,” he said.
With 13,000 season tickets selling out in minutes, and single-game sales expected to go just as quickly, Staal knows his ticket allotment will be in high demand.
“It should get interesting, but it’s always nice to have family there, especially when we’re so far away, like we are, so to get to play a game closer to Thunder Bay is going to be cool.”
The Hurricanes travel to Winnipeg on Oct. 22, Dec. 9 and March 18.