- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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TORONTO -- Eric Staal knew the questions were coming Monday morning, and he was ready for them.
A game in the NHL’s biggest media market brings along the kind of questions he doesn’t always have to answer on a day-to-day basis, although his future will be an increasing topic ahead of the March 2 trade deadline.
But the Carolina Hurricanes captain doesn’t quite have all the answers just yet.
"Not really focused on it, to be honest, right now," Staal told a scrum of Toronto media on Monday ahead of his team’s game with the Maple Leafs. "I have a no-movement [clause] in my contract and, as of right now, no one has asked me whether I’d be willing to move it or not. My focus is on what we have here and helping this team take steps in the right direction."
But he understands why we’re asking.
"That’s part of it with where we are in the standings, and what our team record is, it’s going to be inevitable. That’s just the way it is," Staal said with a shrug.
It’s clear Staal doesn’t want to leave the only NHL team he’s ever played for, and he controls his fate via a no-movement clause. So that’s the first thing that matters here.
Having said that, at some point over the next month or so you have to imagine Carolina general manager Ron Francis will likely sit down with Staal to discuss the future of the franchise and how the captain fits into that. Does he want to stick around for a rebuild?
Keep in mind, Staal’s family loves it in Carolina, and he’s already won a Stanley Cup. He doesn’t have to leave to go chase a championship ring. He’s got one. Don’t underestimate that factor.
But I think one of the reasons Staal couldn’t come out Monday and just totally slam the door on the subject of a trade, given his no-movement clause, is because of this: How would he react if he gets the feeling that the franchise wants to recoup assets for him in its efforts to go younger?
Again, we’re not saying Francis is even thinking about that. But I think you can’t totally discount it. The Hurricanes are 28th in the NHL standings. The first-year Hurricanes GM was charged with making this team better.
"As of now, I’ve never had to have those conversations," Staal said of his future. "I’m just focused on what we’re trying to do in this room. I’ve been there a long time, it’s a place definitely I hold deep in my heart. But wherever life takes you, you figure it out. For me, I haven’t had those conversations."
Francis, in a conversation with ESPN.com on Monday, said he needs more time to get a read on his team.
"I think, quite honestly, we’re still trying to figure out where our team is at," the Hurricanes GM said. "When you look in the summer time at the lineup we’re going to start the season with, we never got to put that team on the ice until Game 41."
Jordan Staal, in particular, missed most of the first half, which was a major hole, but there were a ton of injuries.
Which is why Francis is using the next few weeks to gauge exactly what he has when his lineup is mostly healthy.
"Since we’ve had our lineup together, it’s been pretty good," Francis said. "When you look at our team overall, I know our record is disappointing, you take out empty-net goals, I think we’ve had 21 one-goal losses. That’s the challenge: Is our team good enough with the healthy pieces back in to overcome some of those one-goal losses or do we have to address that in a different fashion?"
Staal and Francis had a big-picture chat last summer.
"I had conversations in the summer time with both he and Cam Ward, they both have no-movement clauses first and foremost, so they have a right to not go anywhere if they want," Francis said. "But we had good conversations [last summer], and quite frankly, pretty blunt conversations on where I thought things were and where I thought things needed to get to."
Francis said Staal came to camp in great shape, but it was unfortunate that he got hurt early on plus also played through an ankle injury earlier this season.
"Probably a lot of guys would not have played with it, but that’s the kind of guy Eric is," Francis said. "He wasn’t 100 percent but he wanted to play.
"I think the coaches are happy with how Eric is playing and the leadership he’s providing. We’re comfortable in that regard."
Staal, 30, has another year left on his deal next season, which carries a $8.25 million salary-cap hit but pays him a $9.5 million salary in 2015-16.
If Staal wants to stay on board, then you would think the Hurricanes need to sign him to an extension this summer, so that they’re not going into next season with the star center entering his unrestricted free-agent year.
Adding to the complexity of the situation -- and another big reason Eric Staal would want to stay on board -- is that his brother Jordan came to Carolina to play with his big brother. Pretty tough to leave just for that reason alone, right?
"A little bit, yeah," Eric said with a smile. "And for right now, we’re playing on the same line and it’s been a lot of fun. This is one of the reasons he came here to have that opportunity. We’re playing first-line minutes and we’re out there against whoever. He’s counted on offensively, our line is counted on to contribute. And we have. It’s been fun."
Jordan’s face lit up Monday when asked about playing on the same line as Eric of late.
"Yeah it’s pretty neat," said the former Pittsburgh Penguin. "It’s one thing to have a brother in the NHL, it’s one thing to play on the same team, but it’s even another thing to play on the same line. It’s been a lot of fun."
Which is why his brother leaving via a trade, well, would be tough to stomach given the fact Jordan signed with the Hurricanes through 2022-23. He came to Carolina to play with his brother.
"Yeah, for the most part, that was a big reason," Jordan said. "You don’t really ever want to see anyone in the family get traded. Obviously it wouldn’t be good. We’ll see how it goes, but we want to be here and we enjoy playing for Carolina."
There goes that idea. And don’t kid yourself, it’s something for sure the three brothers have kicked around over the years -- all playing on the same team.
"Don’t get me wrong, we would have welcomed him with open arms if he wanted to come here," Eric said rather bluntly. "But it was, I’m sure, a decision he thought about for a while, one that he talked about with his wife, he loves being a Ranger. He’s happy to be there. The commitment they made to him and vice versa, it’s a good situation. They’ve got a good team, they compete every year, they almost won last year. I’m happy for him."
Obviously Marc didn’t get the Staal family memo.
"I don’t know, it got lost in the mail or something," joked brother Jordan. "Obviously we’re very happy for him, he wants to be a Ranger. He’s very excited to be where he is right now."
It makes you wonder, had the Rangers won the Stanley Cup last June and given Marc his first Cup ring, would his decision to re-sign with New York have been different? I guess we’ll never know.
You can’t blame Marc for staying in New York in his quest to win a title. They’re not close to a Cup in Carolina.
Yet, what’s clear in what Eric told the media Monday is that he feels this Hurricanes team is better than what it has showed most of this season, the crippling injuries early on helping to dig a hole they couldn’t get out of.
But he sounds hopeful a few moves this summer can quickly get the Hurricanes back in the thick of things next season.
He might be right. And he wants to stay to find out.