During the summer of 2012, fans of the Carolina Hurricanes had grown impatient with their general manager. They had just witnessed another playoff-less season, the third consecutive, and demanded change. Rather, more change. The previous November, Kirk Muller had been brought in to coach the team, finishing with a modest 25-20-12 record.
But it wasn’t enough, and Jim Rutherford was urged to make a splash to keep the masses happy. And at the entry draft, he did.
In a move that shocked everyone, Rutherford pulled the trigger on a deal that sent fan-favorite Brandon Sutter, bluechip blue-line prospect Brian Dumoulin, and the 8th overall pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Jordan Staal. For Carolina, it was more an earthquake than a splash.
“Jordan is an elite two-way player who possesses a rare combination of speed, size, scoring ability and defensive responsibility,” said Rutherford at the time.
In his first year in a Hurricanes’ uniform, Staal has been exactly that. Though the lockout shortened his debut season, he will play his 82nd game with his new team on Saturday in Phoenix. Over his first 80, he’s notched 44 points (17G, 27A) while being flanked by a revolving door of wingers. Similar numbers to what he achieved in Pittsburgh, but, oddly enough, he’s doing it while averaging fewer minutes per game in 2013-14 than in any year since 2007-08.
But Staal’s true strength lies in his defensive game, which should come as no surprise, given that he was a finalist for the Selke Trophy in 2010. In Carolina, nothing has changed.
Despite starting the vast majority of his shifts in either the Neutral or Defensive Zones, and facing-off against the other teams’ top players, he’s limited opposing chances while still managing to create his own. His shot-attempt differential relative to his team ranks among the best in the NHL. In short: Staal has been the Hurricanes’ best defensive forward — at a Selke-caliber level.
His biggest fan, however, might be his own coach, who has repeatedly stated that Staal “plays the game the right way”.
“He’s playing a direct-north game. He’s using that big body, going head-to-head with top players,” Muller said earlier this year. “He likes the challenge of playing against the best players.”
Though hopes of an increased offensive output haven’t come to fruition, Staal’s “first” season should still be considered a success. He’s been the Hurricanes’ most consistent player, rarely having an off night.
Even when he doesn’t find the scoresheet, his contribution is obvious. His imposing frame makes taking a hit from him a frightening experience, and he’s done it more often than any Carolina forward not named Tuomo Ruutu. When paired with Patrick Dwyer on the penalty kill, the duo is relentless and always a threat to score shorthanded.
In Jordan Staal, Rutherford brought to Carolina a true second-line center, giving the ‘Canes a one-two punch down the middle that has been the calling card of every one of their playoff runs. It’s the next logical progression that began with Ron Francis and Rod Brind’Amour in 2002, and succeeded by Brind’Amour and Jordan’s older brother Eric in 2006 and 2009.
Given their respective contract situations — Eric is signed through 2015-16 and Jordan through 2022-23, each with a No Trade Clause — the Brothers Staal should be in Raleigh for the long haul. Rutherford invested heavily in Jordan, and if year one is any indication, the future looks promising.