TORONTO - The 'C' on Eric Staal's sweater stands for captain. But it could just as easily be a symbol that represents character.
A trying season ended up bringing out the best in the Carolina Hurricanes centre, who rebounded from a dreadful start to lead his team on a spirited charge in the second half.
It was an experience Staal would just as soon have avoided in his eighth NHL season. However, it came with some important lessons.
"I learned I don't like to roll over," Staal said this week in an interview. "It was an extremely difficult start—pretty easy for someone to say 'You know what, it's just not going to be my year.'
"It's one of those times that you go through and I think for me I kind of regrouped and refreshed and started playing the kind of hockey that got me to this level and gotten me to this point and gotten me the numbers I've had in the past."
Staal emerged from the first month of the season with a minus-13 rating, the worst of any player in the NHL. By the new year, he'd slipped to an ugly minus-22 and sported unusually low offensive totals with nine goals and 25 points in 41 games.
Many speculated that the poor play stemmed from his brother Marc's lengthy recovery from a concussion—the result of a hit from Eric the previous season—although that has been downplayed by those around the Hurricanes organization.
Coincidence or not, Eric Staal's turnaround can be traced to directly after Marc returned to the New York Rangers lineup for the Winter Classic. Since Jan. 6, he's climbed up the NHL scoring charts with 14 goals and 43 points in 36 games, among the best totals of any player in that time.
An added bonus has come in the form of an improved faceoff percentage of 52.2 per cent—easily the best of his career.
"His competitive level has been great," said Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller. "There's no question he's in the top three or four forwards in the NHL from Christmas on. He's doing everything for us. ...
"I think his pride has kicked in, his intensity level is high and he's having fun playing."
That has been on display during a number of recent games, including one in Winnipeg last week where Staal scored twice and set up the late winner during a 4-3 victory over the Jets. It was a dominant performance.
Reflecting back, the 27-year-old admits that his early-season struggles took a toll.
"I've never doubted myself, never doubted my ability and knowing what I can do in this league," said Staal. "But you definitely battle confidence. I think every player does, I don't care who you are.
"I think there's times where the net seems bigger and when it doesn't. For me, it didn't seem very big early in the year."
Teammates came away impressed with his steady demeanour and work ethic, particularly when the questions start mounting about the rough start.
Behind closed doors, Staal continued to exude the confidence that comes with being one of 25 players ever to win a Stanley Cup, Olympic gold and IIHF World Hockey Championship gold.
"It didn't really show that much and that's what you like to see," said sophomore forward Jeff Skinner. "You're going to go through those ups and downs every year and it's how you handle them that sort of shows who you are."
It's also a reminder why Staal sports the captain's 'C' in Carolina.