RALEIGH, N.C. – Eric Staal had a pretty tame summer for a change.
There were no weddings for the Carolina Hurricanes’ all-star centre. No video-game cover shoots or rowdy bachelor parties, either.
Instead, he spent the past five months dealing with the lingering disappointment of missing a second straight post-season while also discussing with Carolina’s front office a contract extension to keep the young face of the Hurricanes with them for the foreseeable future.
General manager Jim Rutherford has said he hoped to have a new deal for his 23-year-old star by the start of training camp next week. And while few details have emerged publicly, Staal said the talks are anything but, well, stalled.
“They know I want to be here, they know that I really enjoy the area and love the organization,” Staal said Tuesday. “It’s just a matter of finding the (common) ground that works. I think we’re getting close as we move forward, but it’s not something that I am pressing or that’s going to bother me when the season starts. It’s not. I’ll be ready to play as if it was done.”
Staal is entering his fifth season with the Hurricanes and the final year of a three-year contract he signed in 2006 that will pay him US$5 million in 2008-09 before he is eligible for restricted free agency after the season.
Both sides expect a long-term deal well before then, and naturally, that would be welcome news for coach Peter Laviolette, who has watched Staal blossom from a first-round draft pick in 2003 into a point-a-game scorer, anchor of his No. 1 line and MVP of last year’s all-star game.
“He’s one of the elite players in the game,” Laviolette said. “He’s young, he’s gifted. (Contract talks are) something that happens between management and players, but I don’t think anybody would be disappointed to see Eric Staal be here and play out his whole career here.”
Staal, who had 100 points three seasons ago in leading the Hurricanes to their first Stanley Cup, bounced back from a disappointing-by-his-standards 2006-07 season with 38 goals and 44 assists in 2007-08. That followed a busy summer in which he got married, endured an embarrassing arrest following his noisy bachelor party and was pictured on the cover of the “NHL 08” video game.
His performance prompted captain Rod Brind’Amour to proclaim of Staal that, “I don’t see any reason he can’t be talked about with the Sidney Crosbys and (Evgeni) Malkins when it’s all said and done, because he is that good, I think.”
Still, Staal insisted he didn’t spend his off-season thinking about those statistics, but about this one: The two points in the Southeast Division standings that kept Carolina out of the playoffs once again, making the Hurricanes the only team to miss the post-season two straight years after winning the Cup. They frittered away the five-point lead they had with six games left and ended the season by losing three of four to fall behind Washington.
“You’ve got to have that consistency. Last year, it didn’t feel like we had a huge lull in games where we were terrible, but it was one too many lulls than you can have,” Staal said. “We were a good team last year that missed the playoffs. You want to make sure you start off well, get ahead and then stay up front the whole time. You can’t have any lulls the whole time because there are a lot of great teams, a lot of parity in our league, and you get stuck behind the 8-ball and it’s tough to get back.”
A bigger, stronger Staal said he expects to play with a more physical edge this season – “not lots, but when it’s needed,” he joked – and expects to continue to carry the leadership role he assumed last season when, a week after the “A” on his sweater was made permanent, he helped pick up the slack when Brind’Amour went down with a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 14.
“We’ve got a lot of great leaders in our room,” Staal said. “Obviously, Rod is the main guy and he’s the one everyone falls after. He’s got that great work ethic, and he’s prepared to play every game. I just want to do the same sort of thing, just kind of follow the same type of footsteps. That’s what all players want to do, and you need to have that as a group to be able to be successful.”