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A Personal Challenge to Eric Staal

August 23, 2011, 1:41 PM ET [ Comments]
Matt Karash
Carolina Hurricanes Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
The News & Observer reports that the informal skates are officially underway with Chad Larose now carrying the torch once held by Rod Brind'Amour and more led by a committee of veterans last year. And the Canes recently announced that the official training camp starts on September 17.

We are officially within 1 month of semi-real (pre-season) hockey and within about 6 weeks of the real bonified games that count!

From a Canes follower perspective, this summer feels very much like the summer of 2005. The team is coming off a non-playoff season and made a fairly significant number of off-season moves that at least potentially make the team better. But there are so many moving parts that anyone who can say with certainty how things will work out greatly overestimates his/her ability to prognisticate a very uncertain situation. But due partly to basic mentality and partly due to past success, we Canes fans have been more or less trained to enter situations like this with optimism even if it is guarded a bit and tempered with a little bit of pessimism to dodge potential disappointment.

It's half full I tell ya! If you cannot bring yourself to that feeling heading into training camp, then you just never will.

So on this is sort of a first blog looking into the regular season of 2011-12. We are mostly past the dissecting and evaluating the summer. Hopefully we are way past commiserating and grumbling about how 2010-11 ended. And it is time to start thinking about what happens in October.

And I will aggressively use this blog to issue a challenge to Eric Staal.

First, some important context...This has nothing to do with questioning Eric Staal as a leader. He did just fine leading an upstart surprise 3 rounds deep in the 2009 playoffs with some huge clutch wins. It is not about saying he has not done all that is asked of him in the past. I am not sure if he will reach the 100-point plateau again, but he has developed into a very steady and dependable 80ish point player and improved over the years defensively. And it is not at all about addressing his commitment, team-first mentality or anything like that. A significant part of my long-term optimism for the Canes stems directly from the fact that the core leadership of the team (Staal, Ward and increasingly Sutter) is spot on in terms of being the right kind of people in the locker room, in practice and on the ice in real games.

So why in the heck am I issuing a challenge to Eric Staal, and what the heck is it then?

The challenge is for Eric Staal to take 1 more step forward in his development and become the type of player that makes his line incredibly difficult to play against on a nightly basis and creates matchup problems for opposing coaches and wins its battle nightly. The key point in this is that this needs to be driven by Eric Staal.

It is not about getting him good enough linemates. It is not about him finding the right chemistry with his wings. It needs to be about Eric Staal taking a step forward and doing 2 things:

1) Making the players that he is playing with better.

2) Being a physical puck-keeping/getting force in his own end and a monster in the defensive end.

It is not that his game is completely minus these 2 attributes. But I would say that these 2 areas are the ones that take him from being a solid 2-way 1st line center to one that is clearly in a 2nd tier below the elite (think Crosby, Ovechkin) to being a player who can fight his way into range of that top tier. As far as complementary linemates go. I would argue that Staal has more been the kind of player who benefitted from certain skillsets (playmaking most notably but also physical space makers) of his linemates. His breakout season came when Cory Stillman proved to be the perfect stretch pass-making, shot-creating playmaker on a line with Staal and Cole in 2005-06. Stillman made both Staal and Cole 2X better than anything anyone could have anticipated heading into that season. He got a similar effect from a similarly talented playmaking left wing in Ray Whitney in the following years. Staal also saw a bump in performance in the 2009 campaign with Cole's return and the chemistry they always had. But aside from maybe Eric Cole to slight degree, can anyone name a player where you could say that he just looked way better when playing with Staal, that Staal boosted so-and-so's game, etc.? I can't. (Ignorning the playoffs) Think Joe Thornton with Jonathan Cheechoo...or Glenn Murray and Sergei Samsonov. I realize that Staal is a different sort of player (much more shoot much less pass) which is perfectly fine, but still...

I am looking for Eric Staal to be a force talent/physical-wise and also to go a level deeper in terms of understanding the skill set of his linemates and helping boost them to a higher level.

And in terms of my 2nd point, Eric Staal has made steady and solid progress in terms of being a decent 2-way center. But he still is just short of being the anchor in that line that wins most nights and breaks even on the others in the 5-on-5 battle nightly regardless of who they are playing against. The lines that are plus a bunch at even strength almost always excel at 1 thing - they play their shifts in the offensive zone where you are sometimes plus and never minus. Eric Staal's bag of tools (size, strength, decent puck-handling) are perfectly suited for leading a puck possession type of effort that wears down defenders and gives up very few chances the other way. But Staal just has not reached the level of tenacity, situation reading and whatever else it takes to lead a line that consistently tilts the ice downhill at the opposition's net. Staal's line has always seemed to require a lot of help in this regard at wing (most notably Ruutu and Cole filling this role and Staal's line struggling with puck possession anytime he played with 2 smaller wings). And though he has improved defensively, he still has room to continue growing defensively. With Brandon Sutter's rapid growth into the anchor of a good checking line, Staal should get his share of shifts against other team's 2nd best or even 3rd best line. His line needs to do better than breakeven.

Assuming Cam Ward is healthy and the rest of the roster performs at least close to expected, I think the difference between the Canes again battling down to game 82 for a spot somewhere between #7/8 in the playoffs and the disappointment of #9-11 lies with Eric Staal and his ability to become a dominant leader of his line and make his linemates, regardless of skill level and who they are, better 5-on-5.

Put in statistical terms, if Eric Staal is again a breakeven or even slightly worse (he was -10 last year), then I think the Canes are again that borderline team. The path to competing for a Southeast Division title or otherwise falling to a safe #4-6 spot in the playoffs comes if Eric Staal and his line are better than whoever they play against every night to the tune of Eric Staal being a plus 15 to 20 player this season. That's the challenge in numbers - his line scoring 15-20 more than they give up at even strength this season.

So there is the challenge - I challenge Eric Staal to take the next step forward in his progression and lead his line to winning 5-on-5 night in and night out. When you couple that with Sutter's ability defensively, decent offensive depth and good goaltending and the team takes a step up from 2010-11.

Go Canes!
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