Call it a gut feeling. Intuition. Maybe this is the beginning of my long — and hopefully hugely profitable — fortune-telling career. But Eric Staal looks like he's ready to emerge as one of the stars of the NHL this season. Not a star, as he's been for some time, but one of the stars.
For those of you who vividly remember the 2005-06 season from start to finish, Staal was a thoroughly dominant force from the get-go. Opponents were overwhelmed by his combination of speed, power and skill. He wasn't just a game-changer, he was the pivotal player on the ice every night.
And he has that look again.
Before I proclaim Staal the winner of the Hart, Art Ross and Rocket Richard trophies, it's fair to note that all we've seen from the 24-year-old the past month are practices and preseason games — hardly a definitive sample to determine what is forthcoming. At the same time, we're not talking about a player looking to make a name for himself. Staal is a proven commodity: a franchise player who has shown he can elevate his play in clutch situations and the postseason.
Entering his sixth NHL season, Staal has already twice hit the 40-goal mark and, since the lockout, is just just one point shy of averaging a point per game. He's also become one of the NHL's ironmen, having missed just one game during his five-year career — during his rookie season — and has played a full 82-game schedule the past four years.
But Staal is judged — fairly or unfairly — on his 2005-06 campaign. Not only did he lead the Hurricanes in postseason scoring on their run to the Stanley Cup (9-19-28 in 25 games), but he finished with 100 points and set career highs in goals (45) and assists (55). Much of that was the product of the new NHL. The rule changes that are still intact today were in their infancy, leading to tightly called games that resulted in more power plays. Staal — and a lot of other players — capitalized on the increased man-advantage time. He finished with a team-high 40 points on the power play, 16 more than he had last season and five more than any other year in his career. And that was on a team with a 17.1 percent power play efficiency, only 20th in the league and lower than any post-lockout Hurricanes' squad except the abysmal 13.9-percent effort of 2006-07. But the 48 power-play goals scored by the Canes in 2005-06 matched the amount put up by the 2007-08 squad, whose 20.3-percent conversion rate is Carolina's best since the work stoppage. So more chances (281 of them) means more goals, even if the team isn't as efficient.
It's also worth noting that Year 6 has been a breakthrough season for many of the games all-time greats. Detroit's Steve Yzerman put up a ridiculous 155 points — the most of his storied career — in his sixth campaign. Same thing for Jaromir Jagr: he had 62 goals and 87 assists for a career-high 149 points in 1995-96. Hall of Famer Phil Esposito had his first of six 100-point seasons in 1968-69. Brett Hull's 86-goal season in 1990-91? You guessed it. Even defenseman Paul Coffey had his best statistical season in his sixth year, finishing with 138 points on 48 goals and 90 assists in 1985-86.
For everyone one of these, of course, there's a player who was an immediate superstar — see Gretzky, Wayne or Lemieux, Mario — and others who were late-bloomers (Carolina's own Ray Whitney has put up his best numbers in his mid-30s).
Staal may be hard-pressed to ever match the statistics of that 2005-06 regular season, especially with a lot of the league — Carolina included — reverting to their pre-lockout ways by adding more grit and size to their lineup. But we're not talking about just statistics, because in general the numbers are down across the board.
Beyond all the numbers, as summer turns to fall in the Triangle, there seems to be a spark in Staal's game. There's a quiet determination and an almost a playful nature to how he's handled opponents this preseason, like a cat who has caught a mouse and let's it escape, only to snatch it at the last second and start over before finally deciding to devour it.
Maybe it's the natural progression of a player. Maybe it's the maturity that gradually builds as one gets older. Maybe it's fatherhood, which I can attest immediately opens your eyes to what it means to be truly responsible. Maybe it's the motivation of trying to make Canada's Olympic roster. Or maybe it's just the preseason, and it means nothing.
But I can't help but feel that there's something special about this incarnation of Eric Staal. And if there is, I look forward to it — and my impending psychic wealth.