The Carolina Hurricanes may have finally caught a break.
That's an admittedly grim way of assessing the gruesome leg injury that was suffered by Jordan Staal on Tuesday night, but in the long run the loss of the veteran center for an extended period may be exactly what this floundering franchise needs to finally turn its fortunes around.
Staal was tracking down a pass along the boards in a preseason game against the Buffalo Sabres when his right skate got caught on the ice simultaneous with being checked. That contact invoked the immutable laws of motion, breaking his leg and sending him to the sidelines for the next 6-8 weeks.
It's a crushing loss for a team that was already set up for another exercise in mediocrity. A new GM (Ron Francis) and new head coach (Bill Peters) aside, the on-ice product looks depressingly similar to the one that missed the playoffs for the fifth season running last spring.
It's also one that already begged serious questions about its strength down the middle. Jordan’s brother Eric is coming off a dismal season and a summer during which he underwent surgery to repair an abdominal muscle injury. Though he's expected to be fully ready to go when the season starts, the string of health issues raises questions about his reliability.
But even if Eric finds himself in top shape, there's not much support behind him. With Jordan gone, the Canes have few options to center the second line. Jeff Skinner could be pressed into service, but that takes their top scoring threat out of his comfort zone. They could ask sophomore Elias Lindholm to move over from the wing into the middle—he's a natural center, but his lack of experience is a concern. Riley Nash or rookie Victor Rask could also be pressed into service. While any one of those four might—might—be able to pick up the offensive slack left by Jordan for a short spell, they're all grossly under-prepared to handle his hard defensive minutes. And that puts the Canes, already a bottom-third team at five-on-five, into a very deep hole.
How deep? The playoffs looked like an uphill struggle for this group with Staal in the lineup. Without him and his leadership? The postseason could be out of reach by American Thanksgiving.
But there is a silver lining to all this in that there's never been a better time to be bad. The 2015 draft is deep with the kind of franchise-altering talent that always seems to lie just out of their reach. And if the 'Canes weren't quite the favorites to nab the top pick before, they're certainly in the running now.
The prize of course is Connor McDavid, the do-it-all center who may be the best prospect to enter the league since Sidney Crosby and is the early choice to go No. 1. If that honor eludes them, the consolation could be Jack Eichel, the flashy American pivot whose speed and intensity allows him to dominate at both ends of the ice. Drop one more slot and the pick could be Noah Hanifan, a two-way defenseman who projects as a high-end No. 1 in the NHL. These are the sort of players around which a contender could be built.
Future glory may be cold comfort to 'Canes fans who are paying to watch this team struggle through this season. But if one of those picks ends up wearing Carolina colors, the fans might look back on Staal's injury as the moment everything turned around for this franchise.