No. 12 needs to be No. 1 for the Canes
Posted February 15, 2009
Coming into Thursday night's game against division foe Florida, the Carolina Hurricanes hadn't played a home game in 12 days. Returning from a west coast road trip, the 'Canes were riding high after claiming four points in three games. Two of those four points came in a win against the mighty Sharks in San Jose; just the third regulation loss at the "Shark Tank" for the Western Conference's top team all season. The stage was set for a good home-stand after four days of rest to recover from a grueling stretch in the Pacific time zone.
With points at a premium (9th place, one point behind the Panthers before Thursday's loss) and a roster that was returning to healthy form (Brind'Amour & Staal back in the line up) the 'Canes took home ice in front of a packed and raucous RBC Center crowd only to disappoint the fans by getting shut out for the first time all season. Following up Thursday's 5-0 loss to Florida was a 5-1 stinker on Saturday night, falling to former Carolina defenseman Mike Commodore and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Now the 'Canes are five points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, with fans searching for answers as to why the team has struggled to score.
I have one possible answer, although it may not be a popular one. I hate to call out a single player, because one man can only do so much. However, Eric Staal needs to be the best player on the ice for the Hurricanes, and he simply has not been so on a consistent basis. Staal has had great moments this season, he's one of just 12 NHL players with six or more game-winning goals. Number 12 leads the Hurricanes in goals, power play goals, shots taken and is one of only five 'Canes to play in all 56 games this season. Those are all impressive numbers, showing that Staal is a special player and capable of greatness with the Carolina franchise. Still, something is missing. That something, I believe, is consistency in effort and aggression.
In a "four point game" against the Panthers this past Thursday Staal was a minus-three in 26 shifts and won only 35% of his face-offs as the 'Canes fell to an efficient Florida team. So, one bad game after a few days off and a west coast road trip where Staal was hurt in San Jose - no biggie, right? If that was in a vacuum I'd agree, but then you have his follow-up performance on Saturday night against the Blue Jackets. Staal shot the puck on-net only twice in 24 shifts, leaving the RBC Center ice after a 5-1 loss with a minus-two for the game. The Florida-Columbus two game stretch is one that the Hurricanes' 24-year-old center will want to erase from his memory quickly.
There's no doubt in my mind that Eric Staal can be a leader for the Hurricanes. We've seen him do it on occasion; last year when Rod Brind'Amour was injured, for example. There are nights where you notice an extra jump in Staal's step, he appears to be skating with extra fervor, forcing the issue on every possession, challenging the opposing defenders with the blatant presence of a play-maker in the offensive zone. Unfortunately, it seems we only get to see that energetic, fearless version of Staal once every three or four games.
But, when you're earning a team-high salary ($5 million this year, $57.5 for 2009-16) and wearing an "A" on your sweater as an associate captain, you need to bring that type of leadership every night by playing with superior energy, aggressiveness and effort on every shift. Quite simply, number 12 needs to be number one for the 'Canes every night if this team is going to be playing hockey past the second week of April. A playoff push will require a playoff-caliber effort from every member of the Carolina Hurricanes, especially from the team's best players.