MONTREAL – The numbers are not pretty for Eric Staal so far and the one that sticks out most is a nasty minus-17 in the first 18 games of the NHL regular season.
No one is more aware of his troubles than the gifted captain of the Carolina Hurricanes himself, who is normally a strong two-way player.
“Not very good, that’s pretty obvious,” was how Staal described his play Tuesday as the Hurricanes prepared to face the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre. “The last few games I’ve got better, but I’m an offensive guy. I’ve contributed offensively all my career.
“It’s been a tough go here. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other parts of my game I haven’t liked, but everyone looks at the numbers, the plus-minus and those things. But there are a lot of games left and I can still improve my game and feel more comfortable with who I’m playing with. The bottom line is to help the team get wins.”
Staal, who has averaged nearly a point per game in his eight-year career, had only four goals and four assists as the Hurricanes got off a 6-9-3 start.
It got so bad that, after going seven games without a point, coach Paul Maurice last week moved the career centre to left wing on a line with pivot Brandon Sutter and Chad Larose.
Staal hasn’t played the wing since the 2010 Winter Olympics, when his centre on the Canadian team was captain Sidney Crosby.
The Thunder bay, Ont., native responded to the move with a goal and two assists in the next two games.
“At that point I was willing to try whatever,” he said. “When you’re minus a bunch and you’re not contributing on the offensive side it’s frustrating.
“It’s been pretty good so far. I’m feeing more comfortable. I’m liking who I’m on the ice with, so it’s been good.”
Maurice hopes Staal and the 22-year-old Sutter, the 11th overall pick in 2007, can develop a symbiotic relationship that will help both be more productive.
“We’ve seen it work in the Olympics, mind you, it’s a lot to ask Brandon Sutter to be Sidney Crosby, but Brandon’s our guy there,” said Maurice. “Some of it is for Staal but some is for Sutter, who on our team gets the tough jobs.
“He’s supposed to shut down (the opponent’s top players) every night and he still finds a way to score 20 goals, as a young man. So we’re trying to develop him into an elite centre and push his minutes up and get him to believe that it’s not all defence all the time. He’s capable of doing more.”
The line may do better now that opposing teams have begun to pay more attention to the so-called second line led by 19-year-old winger Jeff Skinner, who has averaged a point per game to lead the team in scoring.
The Staal-Sutter combination also gives the line two strong faceoff men, one right-handed and the other a leftie, which should help them win more draws and spend more time with the puck instead of chasing it.
Staal, who had 31 goals and 76 points in 81 games last season, wants to see his numbers rise no matter what position he plays.
“It’s hard to put a finger on it,” he said. “There hasn’t been a lot of room.
“You get opportunities, but not those Grade A chances you want. I’m getting guys in my face quite often, but those are things you have to battle through and find that open ice. I’ve got to do a better job of that and if I do, the opportunities will start to come and the pucks will go in the back of the net.”
Erik Cole, Staal’s former winger, was expected to struggle without his gifted centre when he signed last summer as a free agent with Montreal. But Cole has been all of the big, speedy winger the Canadiens hoped for. Instead, it is Staal who has been slow off the mark.
The two are friends and got together Monday night when the Hurricanes arrived in town.
“There’s no question he was part of my success and vice versa,” said Staal. “The defencemen are intimidated by that speed because he can bury you if he gets a head of steam on the wing.
“For me, it opened up the ice a bit. He’s not easy to simulate, but we’re still finding ways to generate offence and the last couple of games we’ve been a bit better at that.”
Losing Cole was a blow to Carolina, particularly since they didn’t replace him with a top signing of their own.
“We were two points from being in the playoffs and you want to improve,” added Staal. “Obviously we’d have liked to keep Erik, but sometimes that’s the way it goes. You get other teams vying for these guys and that’s what happened. We weren’t able to keep him, but that’s behind us and now we’re trying to improve with the group we have.”
It has been suggested, and rejected by Staal, that he has been bothered by a crushing hit he put on his brother Marc in a game against the New York Rangers last season. Marc Staal suffered a concussion and has yet to return.
Eric Staal said he visited his brother last week.
“I haven’t been affected,” he said. “He was back playing after I made the check. There were a lot of decisions made by him and the Rangers after the fact. For me, it’s a hockey hit, one of those things, for him and for me. It’s behind us. He’s on the right track to getting back.”
Staal’s numbers don’t look quite as bad when compared to some other forwards from the 2010 Canadian team.
Jarome Iginla had five goals and was minus-10 and Rick Nash had four goals and was minus-12, each after 17 games. The one doing best was Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, the utility forward on Canada’s team, who had 13 points and is plus-10 in 16 games.