June 22, 2012, Pittsburgh — “We have a trade to announce. And for those of you in the building you’ll be particularly interested.”
That was NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft in Pittsburgh, setting the stage for one of the biggest trades in Hurricanes history: Jordan Staal, the younger brother of then-Hurricanes captain Eric Staal and widely regarded as one of the best young two-way centers in the NHL, was headed to Raleigh.
The Hurricanes and then General Manager Jim Rutherford paid a steep cost to acquire Staal, trading away Brandon Sutter, the No. 8 pick in that draft and defensive prospect Brian Dumoulin, and an even steeper one to keep him, signing him to a 10-year, $60-million contract extension.
For everyone involved, it was worth it, of course. Jordan Staal, freed up from the shadow of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, would flourish in a top-six role, and form a potent one-two punch down the middle with Eric on what would surely be a perennial playoff team.
As is so often the case with sports and life, however, that perfectly-envisioned scenario never played out. The Hurricanes certainly won the trade. Staal was perhaps less than the offensive force they imagined - averaging 16 goals per 82 games for the first four seasons after the trade (though he often saddled with sub par wingers). But he was the two-way player he had always been, winning faceoffs, killing penalties, driving possession and shutting down the opposition’s top players.
But the brothers Staal would not sniff the postseason in their time together in Carolina. A myriad of factors: a porous blue line, poor goaltending and lack of depth/scoring support kept the team short of its goals, and a playoff drought that was just three years old when Jordan Staal arrived in Carolina had become seven following Eric’s departure at the 2016 trade deadline.
Despite his older brother’s absence, however, Jordan continued to be a key piece for the Hurricanes. He kept leading the team as one of its alternate captains and even picked up his offensive game a bit, with three straight 45-plus point seasons from 2015-16 to 2017-18.
But, for the next two seasons, those same factors continued to keep the Hurricanes out of the playoffs. Despite the team’s misfortune, Staal continued to lead by example and play the same hard-nosed, two-way game he was famous for. He continued to navigate and help lead the team through those tough seasons, including the unconventional situation of then head coach Bill Peters splitting the captaincy between him and Justin Faulk in 2017-18.
Then, in Jordan Staal’s eighth season as a Hurricane, all that hard work and patience finally paid off. The team underwent an offseason transformation under new owner Tom Dundon, with Don Waddell made general manager and Rod Brind’Amour coach.
Waddell remade the roster with the additions of the likes of Andrei Svechnikov and Dougie Hamilton, and Brind’Amour mercifully ended the co-captaincy experiment and gave Justin Williams the C.
That group used a second-half tear to erase a slow start and return to the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons and made a run to the Eastern Conference Final. Staal played a pivotal role in that run, scoring the game-tying goal against Washington in game seven and then the overtime winner in game one against the New York Islanders.
When Williams stepped away from the team at the start of the next season, Brind’Amour gave Staal the C. In his second season as captain, as he gets ready to play his 1,000th game Monday night, Staal called the experience of wearing the C one of the things he’s been most proud of in his NHL career.
“Wearing the C is really cool,” Staal said. “I didn’t think I would like it as much as I do. This team makes it that much easier, but I enjoy playing with these guys, leading by example and doing all those things that I grew up doing, my values and the way I carry myself, I take pride in that and enjoy doing that in the day to day. I think wearing the C is a really cool thing, and there’s not a whole lot of guys that get the chance to do it.”
And he’s good at it, too. In his second season as the Canes’ lone captain, Staal’s Hurricanes are off to their best start in franchise history, despite navigating a 10-day COVID pause and injuries to key players such as Teuvo Teravainen and Vincent Trocheck.
The Hurricanes enter Monday night’s game against the Detroit Red Wings, Staal’s big milestone game, with a 27-9-4 record and the top spot in the Central Division. This team has legitimate aspirations of returning the Stanley Cup to Raleigh for the first time since 2006, and Staal’s leadership, which starts with his play and example on the ice, has played a major role in this team navigating unusual circumstances en route to its franchise-best start. He’s been, as Sebastian Aho recently called him, the “ultimate leader.”
“He does that every night,” said Trocheck after a recent win over the Panthers in which Staal scored the game-winning goal. “You know what you’re getting out of Jordo. He’s coming to play. He’s bringing his work boots and he leads by example out there. He’s the epitome of a captain.”
When the Hurricanes acquired Trocheck at least year’s trade deadline, the thought was it would free Staal up from any offensive obligations and allow him to simply “do his thing.”
By all accounts, he’s continued to do his thing, and nothing about the way he plays has changed. But one thing has changed for Staal on the ice: The pucks are going in. So far this season, Staal has 13 goals and 29 points in 38 games. That’s an 82-game pace of 28 goals and 63 points. Both of those would be Staal’s best totals as a Hurricane. The points would be a career high, and the goals would sit one shy of his rookie season.
But, to hear everyone around him tell it, the only difference from years past is the confidence that comes with increased puck luck.
“I don’t know how else to say it,” Brind’Amour said. “I’ve been saying it forever. These plays he’s been making, they’re the same plays he’s been making over and over for years. We’re connecting on them right now. I can’t tell you how many times I’d come back in the game and ‘How did Jordo not have three points last night?’ I’ve been saying this over and over: Right now, he’s getting his due. He’s always made good plays and always had scoring opportunities. I think he’s feeling it right now too with the confidence, and that little bit of confidence is kind of what I think a lot of offensive guys, it brings it out of them. You see it right now in the plays he’s making.”
It’s that ability to be the same player day in day out, whether the puck is going in or not, that makes Staal such a great leader by example for this team, and has earned the admiration of his teammates.
For one of the Hurricanes’ younger players, that admiration started long before he shared the ice with Staal.
“He’s someone who I looked up to since I was a little guy and basically watching his first rookie season when they won the cup that year, I’ve been following him throughout his whole career,” said rookie forward Steven Lorentz. “So it’s pretty cool to be able to just take a step back from hockey things and be like ‘Look at this guy I get to play with.’ … [Staal]’s such a great and respected leader in the locker room, so there are times that I just look over and I’m like ‘Man, it’s pretty cool that I get to play with a guy like that. I’ve only played a handful, and hopefully I can get up to 1,000 some day. That’ll be a dream come true, but one game at a time.”
As Brind’Amour sought to change the Hurricanes’ culture (mission accomplished) and get every player who steps into the Hurricanes’ locker room to buy into what he’s asking for, he couldn’t have asked for a much better example to point to than Staal.
“It’s exactly what makes him so great for me,” Brind’Amour said. “He comes to work every day. He does his job. Does it right. All you have to do, young kids, old kids, it doesn’t matter. You look over and see this guy, how he does it, every day, every shift, and it’s the way that we talk about doing it. It’s kind of hard to have a young guy say ‘No, I’ve got to do it my way’ when you see him doing it this way. That’s what leadership is. You can say it all you want, but you’ve got to walk the walk and talk the talk. You’ve got to do it right and he does it right. And he’s a great guy. That’s the other part of it. He cares about what he’s doing. We want to be hard-working and all that, but you’ve got to care about what you do and how you do it. Obviously he does that.”
As Staal prepares to play his 569th game for the Hurricanes, and 1,000th as an NHL player, it’s a good time to reflect back on his tenure in Carolina. While the team, and Staal himself, ultimately did not take the path everyone hoped for in the years following the big trade, Jordan Staal has ultimately made the major impact on the Carolina Hurricanes that Jim Rutherford envisioned all those years ago.
As this team looks to make its second Stanley Cup run since 2006, Staal’s play and leadership will play a key role. But, Monday, as he plays his milestone game, it’s a time to look back on a player who’s meant so much to the Hurricanes both on and off the ice. No one’s quite sure what Monday’s game against the Red Wings, and Jordan’s brother Marc, will bring. Will he lead the Hurricanes to victory? Will he score one of those big goals he’s had a knack for this season?
One thing’s certain though, as Staal becomes the fifth player in franchise history to play his 1,000th game as a member of the franchise: he’s going to lead by example and play the same hard-nosed, two-way game he has his whole career. Because that’s just what he does.