For Staal, joining Rangers was ‘an opportunity I needed to take’

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NEW YORK (AP) For Eric Staal, it wasn’t that he wanted to leave the Carolina Hurricanes.

He just knew his time with the team had run its course and he wanted another opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup.

“As much as I think they’re doing the right thing with the young players – there’s some great pieces there for the future – I think deep, deep in my gut this was an opportunity I needed to take,” Staal said Monday, hours before his debut with the Rangers against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

New York acquired Staal from the Hurricanes in exchange for second-round picks this year and 2017 and prospect center Aleksi Saarela.

The 31-year-old Staal joins his younger brother, Marc, who is a defenseman with the Rangers. He said it would be the first time he and Marc play on the same team at the same time, and he said he was grateful to Hurricanes executives for working things out so he could play alongside his brother.

The second overall pick in the 2003 draft, Staal is second on the Hurricanes’ all-time list in goals (322), assists (453) and points (775). He was the leading scorer in the regular season and the playoffs on Carolina’s 2005-06 Stanley Cup-winning team.

But Carolina has not qualified for the playoffs since 2008-09. And at 28-26-10, the Hurricanes are seventh in the Metropolitan Division and trail Pittsburgh by four points for the last Eastern Conference wild card slot.

“When you miss the playoffs for six years and you’re the leader, the captain, it’s tough,” Staal said. “There was a lot of trying times. For a lot of different reasons it didn’t happen the way you envisioned. For me it was time for this opportunity and this chance.”

While a no-move clause allowed Staal to control where he was going to go, Carolina retained half of Staal’s pro-rated $8.25 million contract for the remainder of the season. Staal can be an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

“Right now, I’m focused on fitting in with this group, this team, and playing out these 20 games and hopefully having a big playoffs,” Staal said. “That’s why I wanted to come here. I wanted to help this group moving forward. That kind of stuff we’ll worry about later.”

The first order of business was determining where Staal will fit in with a Rangers team that entered the day second in the Metropolitan.

New York coach Alain Vigneault said he views Staal as a center, even though he alternated between center and left wing in Carolina this season. Vigneault did add he thought Staal’s flexibility between center and the wing would be a benefit to the Rangers.

“I do envision him playing in the middle. But the fact that he can play the middle and the left side, play both those positions well, are a good thing for a team; being versatile is a bonus,” Vigneault said. “It gives me more options and we’re definitely going to use those options going forward.”

Vigneault said the addition of Staal showed the organization believes the team is capable of competing for the franchise’s fifth Stanley Cup and first since 1994.

“I think with what’s happened in the league – Chicago, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera – I think it was important to send a message to our group that we believe in them and that we have faith in them,” Vigneault said. “I think that’s the message management and the coaching staff has sent. The fact that he can play in the middle, play on the left side, has won a Cup, has won a World Championship, has won an Olympic medal, you’re talking about an elite player that’s been captain of his team, (and he) is going to bring that leadership to our group. He’s going to fit in real well.”

Governor approves activities for pro teams in New Jersey

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Gov. Phil Murphy tweeted Tuesday that as long as the NFL’s Giants and Jets and the NHL’s Devils follow health and medical protocols, they could open training camps or even hold competition.

The NFL’s preseason and training camps wouldn’t begin until midsummer — teams are doing virtual workouts in place of the usual on-field activities because of the coronavirus pandemic. But the NHL is planning ways to complete the 2019-20 season. Should those plans include the Devils, they now can reopen their training facilities.

“Professional sports teams in NJ may return to training and even competition — if their leagues choose to move in that direction,” Murphy wrote on Twitter.

“We have been in constant discussions with teams about necessary protocols to protect the health and safety of players, coaches, and personnel.”

A Jets spokesman said: “We are working closely with Gov. Murphy’s office, the league and our medical staff to establish prudent, health and safety measures for our staff and players. Based on those guidelines, we will begin to open our facility using a phased approach at a time that is the most practical for our operations.”

The Giants echoed those sentiments and said: “With today’s announcement by the governor, we are finalizing our plans to reopen the Quest Diagnostics Training Center. We will continue to have as many employees as possible working remotely. For employees who need to return to work at our facility, we expect to begin that process next week, and we will do so in a systematic and safe way that adheres to the state’s guidelines and NFL protocols.”

Isolating away from family a ‘hot topic’ as NHL plots return

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Young and single, Thatcher Demko has plenty of time on his hands, with little to do. Quarantining to play hockey wouldn’t be a problem for the Vancouver Canucks goalie.

“I don’t have too many roots,” the 24-year-old said. “I’ve been living pretty much out of my car for the most part for the last six, seven years just going from place to place.”

Older players disagree.

Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk doesn’t think players with children would be interested in spending lengthy stretches away from their loved ones amid the pandemic. And neither does Boston’s Tuukka Rask, who bluntly said: “It doesn’t feel right to take guys away from their families for many, many months at a time.”

It’s a reality players might have to face for the NHL to resume play, something Toronto’s Kyle Clifford calls a “hot topic” among players. While the NHL and its players’ union are discussing a 24-team playoff format to resume the season, figuring out how to incorporate family time in a potential quarantine environment is one of many hurdles to clear.

“For sure that’s a big thing,” said Philadelphia forward James van Riemsdyk, one of the players on the Return to Play committee and a new father. “No one wants to be away from their family for months on end, and everyone is aware of that with who’s on this committee.”

From Dubnyk and Rask in the NHL to Major League Baseball players Mike Trout and Ryan Zimmerman, pro athletes have voiced concerns about spending significant time away from family. When baseball was considering a containment bubble in Arizona to play, Zimmerman — whose wife is due to give birth to the couple’s third child in June — said he wouldn’t accept not seeing them for four or five months.

“I can tell you right now that’s not going to happen,” Zimmerman said. “Not many people have to go through that, nor should they.”

The NHL, like the NBA, does not face the challenge of trying to complete an entire season. But even an abbreviated return calls for coordinating 600-plus players at different stages of their personal lives.

“I think it’d be easier for guys without families or single guys to kind of go on quarantine and enjoy that process as much as you can,” Nashville defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “But it would be tough being a father myself. It would be tough to live through FaceTime in that situation. But you have to weigh the pros and cons on each side and what’s important for you and your family.”

The league was exploring various locations that could host games, including Edmonton, Columbus and Las Vegas. They could be big enough for players to bring family members with them, or the format might allow for a break in the schedule for teams that advance deep into the playoffs.

“You’ve got to kind of create this bubble, but if families are coming in and out, then I don’t know,” said Carolina’s Jordan Martinook, who has a year-old son he doesn’t want to be away from for more than a month at a time. “That kind of compromises the bubble. I don’t know if they would say your family’s got to be with you from day one the whole time or they can’t come if you’re in the bubble.”

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said league officials are “sensitive to the issue and are focused on finding a solution that works for the players.”

New Jersey’s Connor Carrick, whose Devils might be off until the start of next season, said he trusts NHLPA executive director Don Fehr and his staff to make a decision in the best interest of as many players as possible. Those waiting on the possibility of playing, like Washington’s Beck Malenstyn, hope there’s a resolution that weighs isolation from family members against the risk of them getting infected.

“I think there’s probably a happy medium between the two,” Malenstyn said. “You definitely don’t just want to close the door on your family in a time like this. But it’s also you have to look at it if we were going to take that step to go back and play, it’s the safety of your family to probably not have them around, either, just with the exposure to everything.”

Added Demko, the Vancouver goalie: “I think everyone’s going to have to make a sacrifice: players, owners, union. I don’t think that there is a scenario where everyone’s going to be happy with the situation.”

Why Hurricanes, Lightning voted against Return to Play proposal

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The NHLPA Executive Board vote on the 24-team, conference-based return-to-play proposal went 29-2 in favor of the idea. Given the circumstances, increasing the field, rewarding the top four seeds in each conference, and using play-in games to determine the 16 playoff teams was what ended up getting approved.

The two teams that voted against the proposal weren’t in danger of missing out, but had their reasons to be against such a format.

As Lightning forward Alex Killorn explained to Joe Smith of The Athletic, the bigger field and his team having a Round 1 bye were the main concerns among his teammates.

“They didn’t feel it was fair that certain teams that probably wouldn’t have made the playoffs would have a chance to make the playoffs in a best-of-five series,” said Killorn, the team’s player rep. “My team also felt it was unfair that the teams with a bye would not be as well prepared for a playoff series as the teams that had already basically played a playoff series to get into the playoffs.”

[NHLPA board approves 24-team, return-to play-format]

The approved format sees the Lightning start with a bye and participating in a mini-tournament with the Bruins, Capitals and Flyers for seeding before taking on one of the play-in round series winners. How useful those games before Round 2 would be was another issue with Killorn and his team.

“The only problem I have with that format is that the top teams that have a bye,” he said. “I don’t know how competitive the games will be going forward where the teams at the bottom will be playing playoff games right away and [would be] potentially more prepared for the real playoffs.”

Hurricanes’ view

Carolina is set to be the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and would take on the Rangers in the play-in round. The winner of that series would then play the No. 3 seed — either the Lightning, Capitals, Bruins or Flyers.

The Hurricanes had 14 games to play and were sitting in the first wild card spot at the time of the March 12 pause. Player rep Jordan Martinook and his teammates disagreed with the proposal because they felt this created format made their road even tougher.

“It just kind of limits our odds and makes you play another playoff series, basically. It wasn’t just for our team’s situation,” Martinook told reporters on Monday. “You look at teams that had a 10 percent chance to make it, and now they’re pretty much on a 50-50 playing field.”

Who knows if the Hurricanes would have reeled off a points streak over the final 14 games to improve their standing, but Martinook was confident his team could have finished strong.

“I’m not taking anything away from the top four teams,” he said, “but we felt like we could have kept climbing the ladder. It doesn’t really benefit the teams in 5, 6, 7 or 8, it kind of hinders those teams. Then, it gives a lot to the 9, 10, 11 and 12.”

Martinook acknowledged that the ideal return to play format would be to finish the regular season, but time is of the essence and the Hurricanes will be ready to play.

“We’re fine with the way it’s going to go,” he said. “You’re going to have to win to win. We’re fully prepared with what we’ve got moving forward.”

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?
Predators’ Duchene: ‘You don’t want to have a COVID Cup’

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL’s dynamic duos; Malarchuk helping veterans

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Which NHL duo could be hockey’s version of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen? [TSN]

• “Saluting Jaromir Jagr, the most overqualified sidekick in NHL history” [The Score]

• The Devils showed interest in Rikard Gronborg, but his contract features no NHL out clause and he will honor the remaining term on his deal. [Swiss Hockey News]

• The story of former NHL ref Pat Dapuzzo, whose career came to an end after a freak injury, and how he’s influenced those around him. [Sportsnet]

• On Clint Malarchuk and how he’s helping veterans these days. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• The one trophy Wayne Gretzky keeps in his California home is one that was gifted to him from Maurice Richard. [NHL.com]

• A great read on the history of one of the league’s best logos: the Coyotes’ Kachina’s. [Arizona Republic]

• Work on the Islanders’ new arena at Belmont Park is set to resume. [NHL.com]

• The 2020 NHL draft pool for goaltenders is thin. [Featurd]

Robby Fabbri is hoping to make Detroit his home come free agency. [Freep]

• Zayde Wisdom, a 2020 NHL draft prospect, is taking advice from the likes of Wayne Simmonds and the Stewart brothers ahead of taking the next step in his hockey career. [NHL.com]

• Looking back at the short history of the University of Alabama-Huntsville hockey program. [The Hockey News]

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.