The Carolina Hurricanes are on the verge of doing something that they haven’t done in ten years, and naturally, that was the biggest talking point after their 4-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres at PNC Arena on Saturday night.
Lost in some of the playoff commotion was a milestone moment for a player who has been one of the very few constants for this organization over the last seven years, and a human being whose time with the organization has been anything but smooth sailing.
“Not exactly my style,” Jordan Staal said with a smirk about his 500th point, a slick spin-o-rama backhand goal from the slot in the third period against the Sabres. “I wasn’t playing all that great during the game anyways, so I kinda just went for it this time. Maybe I should do that more often.”
Staal’s game isn’t one of finesse, or even one that revolves around the points he produces. When the Hurricanes acquired the then 23-year-old via trade on day one of 2012 NHL Draft weekend, though, there was an assumption that, with a bigger role out from under the shadow of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, his offense would flourish and reach that next level. That never really happened, though.
“I’m sure if you ask any NHL hockey player, they want more points and more goals,” Staal said on Monday. “There’s always that drive to be better, offensively, but at the same time, I know what kind of player I am and what I can do to help teams win.”
Now at age 30, Staal’s game is fully developed and clearly defined. His strengths resemble that of a Selke Trophy candidate, not an Art Ross Trophy candidate.
The on-ice journey to this point in his career hasn’t always been easy. This self-realization is the product of breaking into the NHL and experiencing immediate success in the form of multiple 20-goal seasons and a Stanley Cup ring before his 21st birthday and then taking a leap of faith that didn’t pan out the way anyone expected when he joined his older brother Eric Staal and the Canes and signed a 10-year contract extension in 2012.
The 2013 lockout-shortened season was supposed to be the start of something special for the Canes, who had missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons. The additions of Staal and then star forward Alexander Semin were supposed to push the Canes over the hump, and it looked like that would be the case through the first half of that 48-game sprint of a season.
Then, thanks to injuries and a severe lack of depth, the bottom fell out in catastrophic fashion. Just like that, the Canes’ near-sighted win now strategy (which ultimately led to Jim Rutherford leaving the organization in 2014) failed, and the rebuild began.
From 2013 to the end of the 2017-18 season, the Hurricanes played 458 games, went 192-198-68, saw two GM/head coach regimes flame out, never eclipsed 36 wins in a season, reached the playoff zero times, and eventually got sold to Tom Dundon.
Jordan Staal played in 412 of those games and went through all the few-and-far-between peaks and seemingly unending valleys.
On the ice, Staal was one of the few players that you could rely on. You knew exactly what he was going to do every single night, even when Staal, himself, didn’t know exactly what was going to happen off of the ice.
The brother Staal era in Carolina didn’t have the storybook ending that many had envisioned. Instead of Jordan coming to Raleigh and being a consistent winner with his older brother, they toiled in the bottom-third of the league. On February 28, 2016, Eric was traded to the New York Rangers just a few hours before the Hurricanes played host to the St. Louis Blues at PNC Arena, a game that Jordan played in.
“It’s obviously unfortunate,” Jordan told the media about his brother’s trade after the Canes’ 5-2 loss to the Blues. “It wasn’t the way we envisioned it with myself coming here. We wanted to win. We gave it all we got to try to get this team to where we wanted to go.”
Two years later, on February 23, 2018, Staal was a late scratch ahead of a home game against his former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Two days later, the team announced that Jordan and his wife, Heather, had lost their daughter, Hannah, to a terminal birth defect. It was something that he had weighing on his mind and heart for longer than anyone had known. He came to work every day, regardless, and gave everything he had for his team during an unthinkably trying period for himself and his family.
Leadership isn’t an easy character trait to define, especially in the world of professional sports. Every leader leads in their own way. For Jordan, it’s always been about how he conducts himself. How he carries himself. He’s shown each and every day what it means to be a pro.
“I can’t say much more about him,” head coach Rod Brind’Amour said on Monday. “As a person and as a player, too, he’s as good as they come. His numbers maybe haven’t always been there, but man, as a coach, you just love being able to put him on the ice in every situation. He got what he deserved the other night.”
500 points is nothing to sneeze at. It’s another milestone for a great player and an even better person. There’s still a lot of hockey yet to be played for Staal, though. He’ll quickly put his latest achievement in the rearview mirror and focus on the next task at hand.
“You dive into the team and try to win games, but to hit a milestone, personally, it’s always nice,” Staal said. “It helps to take a look back and take a breath and see what you’ve accomplished, but then you gotta get back into the day-to-day and move forward and focus on what you gotta do next.”
What’s next for the Hurricanes? A Tuesday-night game against... the Penguins. It’s going to feel like a playoff game, given how close the two teams are to one another in the Eastern Conference standings.
It took a lot longer than everyone had hoped, but the Carolina Hurricanes are in favorable positioning in a playoff race in mid-March. After years of hardship, both on and off the ice, Jordan Staal is finally on the verge of seeing this thing through.
He has earned every bit of success that he has experienced to this point, and the same will be true about the success he has moving forward. He arrived in Raleigh as a young, newly married man joining his brother’s team. Now, he’s 30 years old, he has a family, and he has overcome countless obstacles to get to where he is now as a leader of this team. He has grown up as a Hurricane.
“Our fans, they know him,” Brind’Amour said on Saturday. “They appreciate the effort and the kind of player he is. They see him every night. It’s the rest of the hockey world that doesn’t quite understand, I don’t think, or appreciate him, but we do.”