Jordan Staal made himself one of the NHL players to watch and the Carolina Hurricanes a team to watch next season when he signed a 10-year contract extension that will pay him an average of $6-million (all currency U.S.) per season.
The Hurricanes are something of an oddity in the NHL – they seem to either finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference or take a good long run in the playoffs. In 2002, they lost the Stanley Cup final to the Detroit Red Wings, missed the playoffs the next two seasons, then won the 2006 Stanley Cup, missed the playoffs the next two seasons, made the 2009 Eastern Conference championship, and then missed the playoffs for the last three seasons.
By that pattern, then, Staal's timing for joining his brother Eric is good. With Jordan and Eric Staal, the Hurricanes have the option of Eric as the No. 1 centre with Jordan at No. 2, or Jordan as the No. 1 with Eric on his wing.
If goaltender Cam Ward has a great season and Jordan Staal proves he can step up to a top centre's offensive output, the Hurricanes will be an Eastern Conference contender. That also puts more pressure on teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning, teams that did not make the playoffs last season and think they have what it takes to make the big dance this season.
Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford marched his team a big step forward by trading for Jordan Staal and it means one less team is certain to miss the playoffs. So there's one more team to climb over for the Leafs, Lightning, et al.
The contract extension means Staal has to show he can step into a higher class of centre now that he is out from under the shadow of Pittsburgh Penguins superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Staal's best season points-wise was 2011-12 when he had 50 points in 62 games, as Crosby missed 60 games with a concussion, allowing Staal a lot more ice time and gave him a presence on the power play.
Staal had his own injury problems, as he missed 20 games after a knee injury in early January. But he came back strong, although the Penguins did not, falling to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round.
The comparables to Staal, 23, are varied even though his salary-cap hit of $6-million puts him among the league's elite. Among other centres 25 years old or less with comparable cap hits are Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks ($6.3-million) and Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals ($6.7-million). Other comparables are Mike Richards, 27, of the Los Angeles Kings ($5.75-million), David Krecji, 26, of the Boston Bruins ($5.25-million) and Ryan Getzlaf, 27, of the Anaheim Ducks ($5.325-million). All of those players except Backstrom have a Stanley Cup.
There is one other comparable, Claude Giroux, 24, of the Philadelphia Flyers whose cap hit is a bargain at $3.75-million. However, his contract has two years left and you can bet his cap hit will soar come 2014.
The other difference between Staal and those centre is they all have posted seasons of much better than 50 points as a career-best. Richards, for example, slipped to 44 points last season with the Kings but, like his team, he rose dramatically in the playoffs and was a key player in the Kings' Stanley Cup win.
Add it all up and Staal will join Zach Parise and Ryan Suter as the players with the most eyes on them next season, no matter where the latter two wind up.