The Carolina Hurricanes have finished their exit interviews, the draft lottery has taken place and thus the time has come for us to take a look back at the year that was for Jim Rutherford’s club.

I’d like to start our off-season discussion with Jordan Staal. By all accounts, Staal’s first campaign in Carolina fell short of expectations, and I think he’d be the first person to tell you that. Upon acquiring the young center, Rutherford called Staal “elite” and said “there are maybe two or three other players that are like (him).” These statements created some unfair expectations for what was to come, and probably put some unnecessary pressure on the kid as well.

Still, the offensive production that one would hope to receive from a top-six center wasn’t there for Jordan — there’s no denying that. With 10 goals and 21 assists in 48 games, he put up his worst offensive numbers since 2009-10. Given this year’s short schedule and his injury history, we’ll break this down in terms of points per game:

2006-07: 0.52 PPG
2007-08: 0.34
2008-09: 0.60
2009-10: 0.60
2010-11: 0.71
2011-12: 0.81

One would think that with more minutes — both at even strength and (especially) on the power play — that Staal’s numbers would go up from his time with the Penguins. That wasn’t the case until the end of the year when he posted seven points in his last eight games. Could he have been turning a corner and finally adjusting to his new role? Certainly. But we won’t know until next year when he has an adequate chance to prove himself.

For now, as we begin our wait for training camp, doubts over Staal’s ability remain — many of which were non-existent when he was acquired last summer.

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“I really wanted this season, coming in here, for this team to win and for me to be a part of that,” Staal told Chip Alexander of the News & Observer. “I feel like to a certain degree I’ve felt like I was letting the team down.

“I’ve never been in this situation before. It’s not fun. You’ve got to let some (of the frustration) go and just go work and hope that if you keep working good things will happen.”

Of note: As was the case for the Canes as a whole, Jordan struggled mightily against Southeast opponents. He had just six points (3 G, 3 A) in 18 contests within the division, posting a minus-11 rating in those games. Now that Carolina will find itself among much tougher company with the realignment, this trend needs to be bucked.

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Despite his struggles, I do see Jordan putting up far better numbers next season than he did in 2012-13. The biggest reason for this belief is his ability to get the puck to the net, even if he wasn’t burying his chances. Staal’s shot percentage was a paltry 8.8 percent last year — good for just 313th in the league — which was far below his career average of 12.6 percent. With some better luck and an improved, more relaxed mentality, it wouldn’t take much for his goal-scoring to rise significantly.

His 16.8 shot percentage of 2011-12 is probably unsustainable, but somewhere between that figure and the one he posted last season would give him respectable numbers. If he had converted at his career average of 12.6 percent last year, he would have scored 14 times — four more times than he actually did. That pace over the course of 82 games would give him 24 goals. Not bad at all.

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We’ve spent a lot of time in this space discussing the validity (or lack thereof) of the plus/minus stat, but Jordan’s minus-18 rating is somewhat troublesome. Yes, the Canes had lots of goaltending and defensive issues this season, but Staal’s most valuable quality is his two-way play. The plus/minus rating may not properly illustrate his performance, but it does have some merit (albeit not as much as a lot of people care to believe).

One scout I spoke to in the middle of the season said J. Staal’s defensive game was hurt by the way he was pressing offensively. While this wasn’t true every night, I do think this was an issue at different junctures of the year. When a player is gripping the stick too hard and putting too much pressure on himself, it can affect every aspect of his game. Jordan’s eldest brother Eric knows that all too well.

“I think at times he has put so much pressure on himself it has eaten away at him,” Muller said recently of No. 11. “Mentally, that just drains you. And he looks like he’s mentally drained sometimes.”

But Eric knows something else, as well: improving on the defensive front can be done quite seamlessly with a fresh slate. Eric was one of the worst defensive centers in the NHL in 2011-12, yet his performance in this regard was remarkably better this season. A big part of what helped E. Staal fix his D was those around him, which leads to my next point…

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When a young player is thrown into a much larger role than he is accustomed to, it’s imperative for him to have a strong supporting cast. Jordan simply did not have that in 2012-13. If you give him the kind of wingers that Eric had this year in Alex Semin and Jiri Tlusty, I think J. Staal has a much different season.

As I wrote back in January, him and Jeff Skinner developed fantastic chemistry in the early going, but a concussion and subsequent slump for No. 53 put a major damper on Jordan’s numbers. At left wing, Staal had a revolving door of line-mates, none of which proved to be adequate until Tuomo Ruutu returned from injury. Unfortunately, the gritty Finn wasn’t able to take over a top-six role until the last few weeks, so we’ll need time in training camp and pre-season to see if J. Staal and Ruutu are actually a good fit. My guess is they will work together just fine.

Heading into next year I’d like to see a Ruutu-J. Staal-Skinner line from the get-go. Putting Skinner at third line center was a nice late season experiment by Muller, but I don’t think that’s a long-term solution.

Ruutu brings a blend of scoring prowess and physicality to the table, and would be the one to fight in the dirty areas of the rink. Staal has the size and strength to drive to the net and fight in the crease, and Skinner has the natural skill, speed and goal-scoring ability to balance out the qualities of the aforementioned two. “Jordan’s a big guy who can track the puck down low. Skins is the type of player that reacts off of people,” Muller told me in January. “By Jordan hanging onto (the puck) down there, he gives Skins a chance to find the holes, find the openings and then capitalize on his skill level.”

This is how I see it: Skinner and Ruutu worked great together in 2011-12; Skinner and J. Staal worked great together in the early portion of 2012-13. The ingredients are undoubtedly there for a special line.

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One thing that’s easy for us to forget is that Staal is just 24 years old. Having been in the league since he was 18, he is now very much a — but his young age gives him a lot more room to improve.

Bottom line: True, J. Staal did not “wow” us by any means in 2012-13, but it’s very easy to see him taking a big step forward next fall. Coaches throughout the league — including Muller — have talked about the lack of practice time that came with the condensed schedule, and I think Jordan needed that extra time more than most.

With a chance to regroup, fully acclimate himself to a top-six role and skate with strong line-mates, there is good reason to believe that big things are on the way for him.


Photo credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports, Any Martin Jr. 

About The Author

Andrew Hirsh is a graduate of Elon University and is entering his fourth year as a credentialed NHL writer. He founded SunbeltHockey.com in 2012 and serves as the site's managing editor. Andrew can be reached via email at ahirsh3@gmail.com.