While other key Carolina Hurricanes saw their play plummet and/or got injured the past few seasons, Jordan Staal has been reliable (if a bit underwhelming offensively) while playing every game in two campaigns.
After breaking a bone in his right leg on Tuesday, that streak is almost certain to end, leading to an uncomfortable question: where does this bit of bad luck leave the Hurricanes?
TSN’s Scott Cullen described the situation pretty succinctly, at least in a broader sense:
To get a little added perspective, PHT asked Shutdownline’s Corey Sznajder* how Carolina might handle the loss of a 26-year-old center who could tilt the ice in his team’s favor like few other Hurricanes:
“The most underrated part of his game was how he could drive play while not getting fed soft assignments, and I don’t know if anyone on the roster can do that right now. Eric Staal used to, but he hasn’t played those minutes in two years. Add in the fact that he’s coming off an injury and it’s just a tough situation all around.
In theory, Eric might be able to handle those minutes but then you’re going to be leaning on his line for a lot more than you used to.
A saving grace is that they have a couple of good defensive-minded centers who can soak up most of the tough territorial assignments, but who plays the tough matchups against other teams first lines will be interesting to see.”
Indeed, one would anticipate that the Hurricanes might try to absorb Staal’s absence “by committee.”
While his brother Eric might take some tougher shifts – the elder Staal started a luxurious 62.3 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone thanks in part to Jordan’s versatility – one would assume that the Hurricanes may lean on defensive specialist Jay McClement (who was almost the polar opposite to Eric Staal in only beginning 28.6 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone during his last season in Toronto) more than originally anticipated.
Staal averaged 18:56 minutes per night, with 1:37 of that coming shorthanded and 2:15 on the power play, which is a nice way of capturing his “Swiss Army Knife” identity as an NHL center.
The challenge facing new head coach Bill Peters is finding the right balance between having hard workers with limited offensive skill like McClement doing the “dirty work” versus giving Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner and others enough easy scoring opportunities to keep this team afloat. It would be interesting to see if Peters provides any added perspective on this subject as this week goes along, as this is a formidable predicament.
In the grand scheme of things, there’s really not a neat and tidy answer to this question beyond hoping that Staal isn’t on the shelf for too long … and it’s also worth noting this Hurricanes team was already an “underdog” (at best) with Jordan Staal at full health in the first place.
Even so, it’s an intriguing early test and a cruel introduction to the random luck of NHL head coaching for Peters, especially if this issue keeps Staal out of action for a substantial amount of time.
* -For more on how much Staal helped the Hurricanes last season even when his offensive numbers weren’t always awe-inspiring, check out Sznajder’s work here and here.