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Jordan Staal at 700: still young, but a veteran leader

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An alternate captain since the day he came to Raleigh four years ago, Jordan Staal is a bit of a paradox: a youthful elder statesman.

Jamie Kellner

Carolina Hurricanes alternate captain Jordan Staal, the youngest of the three brothers who have made careers as National Hockey League regulars, played in his 700th game on Sunday.

Feel old reading that? Try this: Staal just turned 28 two months ago, yet he is the fourth most-senior member of the Hurricanes, and the next youngest guy on the list is Jay McClement, who turns 34 in February.

Just over 100 active players in the NHL have played 700 games. Staal became number 104 on Sunday, one game after another of those players, Lee Stempniak, played in his 800th game. At 28 years and two months, Staal is the youngest member of the 700-game club. In fact, only six active players have played that many games and are not yet 30 years old, and the others are all 29: Anze Kopitar (776), Phil Kessel (762), Marc-Edouard Vlasic (749), Andrew Cogliano (717) and Sidney Crosby (713).

It’s a testament to the resiliency and dedication of a player who made his NHL debut a month after his 18th birthday, finished third in the Calder Trophy voting his rookie season, won the Stanley Cup at 20 and has persevered through two long-term injuries to be a bedrock contributor to two franchises.

Staal calls it a “mosh pit of stuff” when looking back on what he’s accomplished over his eleven seasons in the NHL.

“There’s no question there are lots of ups and downs throughout a career,” Staal says. “There’s hard times and really good times. You want to take it all and enjoy it. Obviously the Stanley Cup would be top of the list, then having a big game here and there is always fun.”

When he joined the Canes from the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2012, Staal was looking to make more of a mark as a top-six forward, rather than being stuck behind Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the foreseeable future. While it hasn’t panned out quite the way he had thought it might upon moving to Raleigh, Staal tallied 48 points last year, his highest total since the trade and two off his career high.

Not only that, he’s found a home with Andrej Nestrasil and Joakim Nordstrom on his wings. 41 of Staal’s 48 points came before Nestrasil’s neck injury last season, and the three looked lost in the wilderness to start this season before being reunited again recently and accounting for the Canes’ only goal last night against the Devils.

As the old hand on that line, as well as one of the elder statesmen of the locker room and one of the the six Hurricanes players with a Stanley Cup championship ring, joining Cam Ward, Teuvo Teravainen, Bryan Bickell, Joakim Nordstrom and Viktor Stalberg, Staal has seen his career come full circle. He played in consecutive Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009, winning it all in the latter year, hearing from veterans about how you can never take success for granted.

Now, he’s one of those veterans himself, telling his younger teammates the same things he heard himself seven and eight years ago.

“Even when I was going through those runs, a few older guys said that they won it early and had a tough time getting back there,” Staal says. “It’s not easy getting back. There are a lot of things that have to go right. When you do get there, you relish the moment. I’m working as hard as I can to get that opportunity again.”

Never taking a game off is a Staal family trait. Marc has recovered from his eye injury and, in his tenth season, is only 70 games behind Jordan. Barring anything unforeseen, Eric will hit hit 1,000 games played in March.

One can easily see a scenario where all three brothers are in the top 100 of all-time games played when they hang up their skates. Assuming good health and the absence of any labor stoppages, Jordan will hit the 1,000-game mark sometime early in the 2020-2021 season, not long after his 32nd birthday. If that trend holds, he could be the youngest player since Steve Yzerman to reach the milestone at that age, depending on how soon Kopitar and Kessel get there.

From there, it’s anyone’s guess how long he’ll continue. He could well end up in the top 50, in the ballpark of some of his former teammates: Darryl Sydor is 63rd at 1291 games played; Sergei Gonchar 59th at 1301. Two former Canes are also in the same neighborhood, Ray Whitney (53rd, 1330) and Matt Cullen (58th, 1306 and counting). Even one of his former coaches, Kirk Muller (49th, 1349), is in reach.

Staal certainly hopes to be in that neighborhood when he calls time on his career, whenever that may be.

“It’s part of a career that I’m fortunate and blessed to be a part of, and hopefully it can continue.”