RALEIGH, N.C. — When Jordan Staal was traded from the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Carolina Hurricanes in the summer of 2012, he never imagined he would have to wait seven seasons to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time with his new team.
“It’s been frustrating,” Staal said. “There have been some hard times. If you asked my wife, I’ve been miserable at times.”
Those struggles will be packed away in the coming days as the Hurricanes prepare play the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference First Round. Game 1 of the best-of-7 series is at Capital One Arena on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; USA, SN360, TVAS, NBCSWA, FS-CR).
For the first six seasons of Staal’s NHL career, the playoffs were an annual occurrence. He played 73 postseason games and won the Stanley Cup in 2009.
“He’s had to fight through what we’ve been doing,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said, referring to Carolina’s nine-season playoff drought. “I think that’s tougher for a player who’s been there. And the kind of guy he is, he leaves it on the ice. He gives you everything he has. I’m happy for him we’re able to do this.”
The Carolina chapter of Staal’s career began on his wedding day, June 22, 2009, when the Penguins traded him to the Hurricanes for forward Brandon Sutter, defenseman Brian Dumoulin and a first-round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft.
He joined his brother, Eric Staal, to create what the Hurricanes hoped would be a formidable 1-2 center combination. Each a No. 2 pick in the NHL Draft (Eric in 2003, Jordan in 2006), they were expected to usher in an era of winning in Raleigh.
Jordan has rolled with the changes ever since. Brind’Amour is his third coach after stints with Kirk Muller and Bill Peters. Eric was traded to the New York Rangers on Feb. 28, 2016 and now is in his third season with the Minnesota Wild. Jordan and Justin Faulk, who served as co-captains in 2017-18, relinquished the captaincy to Justin Williams before this season. Staal and Faulk were made alternate captains.
“All those things change, players change,” Staal said. “That’s a career. That’s what I’ve been blessed with. All that stuff I don’t take for granted. They’re all great memories. (But) the longer you’ve got to wait, the more impatient you get.”
Staal missed a stretch of 32 of 34 games because of a concussion sustained Dec. 5, but his game got better in the final six weeks, with 17 points (six goals, 11 assists) in the final 21 games of the regular season.
“You can tell by the way he plays and little subtleties about him in the stretch run how bad he wanted (to make the playoffs),” Williams said. “To not have the opportunity to win for so many years is frustrating. He does a lot quietly, but you know how much this means to him.”
Staal is known for his two-way game more than his offense. His 48-point season in 2015-16 has been his productive with Carolina. He had 28 points (11 goals, 17 assists) in 50 games this season.
“That’s the problem, everyone fascinates on goals and assists,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s one of our most valuable players by a mile. It’s not even close. I think he’s one of the better players in the National Hockey League. I do think there’s a whole other level of offense he has that’s just waiting to happen.”
When the puck drops Thursday, Staal will try to find that offensive gear and go about his usual business of shutting down the League’s top offensive players. For a while he will leave behind all his past frustrations and try to put his stamp on another playoff series.
“It’s taken a toll,” he said. “There’s obviously been some really hard times here. But I don’t think there’s a player who has gone through a whole career who hasn’t gone through tough times. For myself, it’s that much sweeter being where we’re at right now. I want to make the best of it.”