Eric Staal focused on 'fitting in' with New York Rangers
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 in a 2-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Staal won 9 of 17 faceoffs in 15:43 of ice time. He tallied a shot on goal, missed another, had a hit, a takeaway and a giveaway in the game.
He started the game centering Oscar Lindberg and Kevin Hayes, but was moved to the left wing in the third period as part of a line with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello.
''I thought he was all right,'' said coach Alain Vigneault, who listed Staal's attributes before expressing hope that the fresh start with the Rangers could rejuvenate the center.
''Everybody saw the size and puck protection capabilities. He's going to help our leadership group,'' Vigneault said. ''He gets an opportunity to play for a team where the games mean a little bit more.''
New York acquired Staal from the Hurricanes 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. Staal is the first player in NHL history to play one game with three brothers in his career, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
He had played with Jordan and Jared during his time in Carolina. 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 No. 2 overall pick in the 2003 draft, Staal is second on the Hurricanes' career 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 spot.
''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 Division.
Before the game, Vigneault said he views Staal as a center, even though he alternated between center and left wing in Carolina this season. Vigneault added 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.''
AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow contributed.