When it comes to having success as a competitive hockey team, there’s an ancient proverb that still holds true to this day: “Your best players have to be your best players”.

Eric Staal isn’t superhuman, capable of bilocation or the herculean strength necessary to literally carry the team on his back. He isn’t even Sidney Crosby. In fact, he’s set to average his lowest TOI per game since 2006-07, and has suffered several injuries over the last calendar year. At 30-years-old in October, he’ll soon be exiting his prime.

With just 58 points on the year, the “C” on his chest, and more than $9 million in his pocket, Staal makes an easy target for fans to blame for Carolina’s subpar season. But is that fair?

Like it or not, Staal’s slide actually began in May of 2013 in a World Championship game against Sweden. He took a vicious knee from Alex Edler — suspended by the IIHF for the remainder of that tournament and part of the 2014 Olympic Games — and was sidelined for the rest of the summer with a third-degree MCL sprain, unable to begin skating until late August.

Though he was “ready” for training camp and the season opener, it’s clear he wasn’t the same Staal. He produced just 9 points (3g, 6a) in his first 18 games as the ‘Canes won only seven of them. He’ll never admit the injury hurt him — and it wouldn’t be the first time he’s gotten off to a slow start — but something was missing. He’d go on to miss a few games in early January with what was termed a “lower body” injury, but it was never disclosed if the two were related.

Since the slow start, Staal has picked up 49 points in 57 games, and hasn’t been held off the scoresheet for more than three in a row. Still only a 70 point pace in a full season, but Jiri Tlusty’s inability to replicate last year’s absurd shooting percentage, scoring on every 5th shot, has led to a constant shuffle of linemates.

Points aside, Staal is actually dominating possession time on a team that doesn’t. The Hurricanes as a whole tend to get outshot, but while Staal is on the ice at even strength, regardless of wingers, his line has attempted 99 more shots than the opponents, third best on the team behind Alex Semin and younger brother Jordan. Compare that to last year when his figure was dead even, only saved on the heels of a Crosby-like unsustainable 11.7 percent shooting while on the ice.

After last year’s pleasant hiccup, his even-strength numbers have fallen fairly in line with his career averages. Discounting the shortened season, points per 60 minutes are actually at a three-year high, having dipped to 1.64 in 2010-11 and risen to 1.93 this year, second only to Jeff Skinner.

On the powerplay, however, the story is a different one. Under Kirk Muller, Staal has just 8 goals in the last three years, and only 9 total points (1g, 8a) in 2013-14. His time on the unit is shrinking with almost 30:00 less than in the last full season. How he’s been utilized may have something to do with it; attempts per 60 minutes are down 2.5 since the last time he recorded double-digit goals, in 2010-11.

Whatever his problem with the man-advantage, he’s not the only one. The Hurricanes’ powerplay has been abysmal for years, and has only recently looked passable when filled with completely new faces like Andrei Loktionov, and the absence of a Staal.

But there’s only so much impact one player can have on the game.

Staal skates for an average of one-third of an NHL contest. He can’t help that the defense is still a below-average unit, or that Cam Ward has struggled to find his groove — and a save percentage north of .900. He can’t help depth players not whiff on empty nets, or clear the puck in the last minute of a tied game. He can’t help a coach’s questionable matchup decisions, or line combinations, or unideal deployments.

Most unfair is the constant criticism that Staal doesn’t care, or that he lacks leadership. While his back-checking can sometimes leave something to be desired, that’s not equitable to not caring. It’s easy to see how much the lack of success weighs on him. That it’s not outwardly expressed with constant stick-smashing or media rants is irrelevant.

Staal is a professional athlete who wants to win, just like any other. He’s not complacent, lazy, or care-free. But there’s only so much one guy can do.

About The Author

Andrew Luistro graduated from Appalachian State University. An avid sports fan, he began beat writing for the Sunbelt Hockey Journal, part of The Hockey Writers Network, with a focus on the Carolina Hurricanes. Andrew also actively follows the Boston Red Sox and Carolina Panthers, among other teams. Follow him on Twitter @ndrewL7