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Want To See The Real Eric Staal? Wait For Playoff Time

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30. 40. 70.

38. 44. 82.

40. 35. 75.

Those are the goals, assists and points Eric Staal put up — in chronological order — the past three seasons. His goal total this year made him one of just eight NHLers to hit the 40-goal mark. His 75 points placed him in the top 25. 

Those are good numbers. For many, great numbers. But for Staal, we'll stick with "just good." He's haunted — unfairly — by his 2005-06 campaign when he hit the century mark in points and potted 45 goals. On top of that, his success carried over to the postseason, where he led all players in playoff scoring (nine goals, 19 assists for 28 points) and helped lead Carolina to the Stanley Cup.

So let's say it right now. The 2005-06 season will be Staal's "career year," statistically speaking. He is going to be hard-pressed to hit the 100-point mark again. Not only was 2005-06 a perfect storm for Staal, but the league is — again — not as high-powered as it once was. Here's a look at the past eight NHL seasons, the number of 100-point players, and the highest total put up by an individual that season:

 

Season
No. Of 100-Point
Players
NHL Points
Leader: Total
 2008-09  3  Evgeni Malkin: 113 
 2007-08  2  Alexander Ovechkin: 112 
2006-07 7  Sidney Crosby: 120 
2005-06 7  Joe Thornton: 125 
2003-04 0  Martin St. Louis: 94 
2002-03 3  Peter Forsberg: 106 
2001-02 0  Jarome Iginla: 96 
2000-01 2  Jaromir Jagr: 121 

As you can see, the 2005-06 season was the most profilic in terms of individual point production in recent history. You need to go back to 1998-99 when Jagr had 127 points  to find someone getting more than the 125 Thornton had in 2005-06 — and Jagr was so dominant he outscored runner-up Teemu Selanne by 20 points. Mario Lemieux had 161 in 1995-96, but that was the end of the "juiced puck" era.

I wouldn't expect those days to come back any time soon. In fact, I'd argue we won't see seasons like 2005-06 and 2006-07 again unless the league makes drastic changes to increase scoring (bigger or odd-shaped nets; drastically smaller goalie pads, ect.). With the coaching and scouting utilized by each team, NHLers will be hard-pressed to put up the lavish numbers of the Gretzky era. 

Which bring us back to Staal.

No. 12 has become, for all intents and purposes, a point-per-game player. You can expect around 40 goals a year from him because, opposite of what many thought in his draft year, Staal is more of a scorer than a puck distributor. He will fill the nets, but won't put up the assist numbers of guys like Crosby, Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk (curiously enough, those three are the Hart and Pearson award nominees for the NHL's top player), and thus push for 100 points. 

But even more than all that — goals over assists, a decrease in scoring from the early post-lockout days, ect. — Staal won't put 100 points because he's not at his best in the regular season.

He saves that for the playoffs.

It's not that the Hurricanes' 24-year-old franchise player — that's right, he turns 25 in late October — doesn't give the same effort as he does in the postseason. He does, and he does it every night, as witnessed by his four-straight 82-game seasons. But Staal is at his best when he can examine and slowly dissect his opponent. And there's no better opportunity to do that than a seven-game series. 

Want proof? Ask the New Jersey Devils.

Games 1, 2 and 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals series between Carolina and New Jersey had everyone talking about the efforts of Zach Parise. But as the series wore on, the Hurricanes found an antidote to Parise in defensemen Tim Gleason and Joe Corvo, holding the Devils' sniper to just one assist in the final four games. While Parise was stymied, Staal was blossoming. 

Instead of the Devils finding ways to stop the Canes' biggest weapon, Staal found ways to torment the Jersey defense and Martin Brodeur — to the tune of eight points in the final four games. His fourth and final goal of the series stunned the hockey world. It was a blistering shot that beat Brodeur in the final minute of Game 7 and sealed New Jersey's fate — and had Carolina moving on.

Through three games against Boston, the Eastern Conference's top seed, Staal has found holes in the Bruins' — and Zdeno Chara's — armor even sooner. He managed an assist and empty-netter in a convincing Game 2 win, then followed it up with a dominant performance in a more lopsided, albeit closer, Game 3.

The six-year pro wore down Boston's Chara, getting the better of a player many thought would neutralize him in this conference semifinal series. By the time Game 3 was over, all Chara had left for Sergei Samsonov on the game-winning play was a wave of his stick, a spin-cycled look on his face, and the long trip back to the opposing locker room. Surely, he was thinking of No. 12 all the way down the tunnel and beyond.

But none of this is new for Staal. 

In 2005-06, he got stronger as each series progressed deeper. In Round 1 against Montreal he had four assists in Game 2, an overtime loss, then returned to score the game-winner in OT of Game 3, which swung the series momentum. In the Stanley Cup Finals against Edmonton, he had six points in the series' final four games, and that included a Game 6 where the Hurricanes, as a whole, had nothing for the determined Oilers.

Yes, he was held pointless in Games 6 and 7 of the Buffalo series, but it's easy to forget he was just 21 at the time, playing a Buffalo team that was the Canes' equal.

But this incarnation of Staal — older, wiser, bigger — doesn't look like he will shrink away from any challenges this postseason. Brodeur and the defense-first Devils? Bring it on. Boston and the NHL's most intimidating force? Let him try and stop me. 

As the middle games of each series approach, Staal finds a way to figure out his opponent. After learning hands-on the ways his competition is trying to stop him, he evolves — like a Stormy-esque Swine Flu, if you will — and exploits his enemy. He might do it by using his size to dominate behind the opposing net and finding a teammate cutting through the slot, like he did several times against New Jersey. Or he could be the centerpiece of a suffocating attacking-zone cycle, like in Game 3 against Boston. If there's a flaw in his opponent — stylistically or in one specific line, defense pairing or individual player — he can manipulate it to his advantage.

It's hard to replicate this in the regular-season. Yes, there are home-and-home games, but generally one doesn't get a close enough look at an opponent in those scenarios to "figure them out." Carolina's two home-and-home sets this year — early November against Toronto and later in that month against Philadelphia — don't reveal anything special in Staal's output.

But if you look beyond the Nov. 26 and 28 games against Philadelphia, you get an idea of what Staal is capable of. 

Over the course of 15 days, the Hurricanes and Flyers played their entire four-game season series. Staal was relatively quiet in the first three games. He was pointless in the 3-1 loss Nov. 26, managed an assist in a 3-2 overtime win two nights later, and then again held off the scoresheet in a 2-1 overtime loss Dec. 6.

But on Dec. 11, Staal had two goals and an assist in what ended up being a come-from-behind 6-5 overtime win for Philadelphia. It was a tough loss for Carolina, but with backup Michael Leighton in net behind a defense consisting of four recalls from Albany, they were fortunate to make a game of it. More importantly, it provides us a sample of what Staal is capable of doing when given the time to break down an opponent.

It wasn't that long ago that media pundits — and even some Hurricanes fans — wondered if Staal was worth the seven-year, $57.75 million contract that kicks in next season. He was an afterthought on most mock rosters for Canada's 2010 Olympic entry. "Where were the 100-point seasons Staal was supposed to pile up year after year?" they asked.

The thing is, Staal does most of his damage in the second season. And all the doubters — those who have him back in the picture for Team Canada, those who cried "overpaid and overrated" midway through the year — are singing a different tune.

Give Staal a few notes, and I bet he'll sing you the whole song.