RALEIGH, N.C. – A handful of National Hockey League (NHL) franchises possess legacy players who can claim that they helped create, build and enhance their organization’s success and history.
Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal and goaltender Cam Ward can lay claim to that distinction.
Both are the team’s career leaders in establishing numerous statistical categories during the franchise’s playing history in North Carolina that began during the 1997-98 season.
Next to executive vice president and general manager Ron Francis, Staal sits with the team’s highest career totals in points (742), goals (312), and assists (430).
Ward holds the Hurricanes’ all-time records for most games (512), most wins (246), most shutouts (22), and most minutes played (29,321).
They both want to remain with Carolina, the first and only NHL team they’ve played for.
As the team’s top picks in the 2002 and the 2003 drafts, Ward selected 25th overall and Staal second overall respectively, they hold the most enduring legacy to carving out the Hurricanes’ history which includes winning the Stanley Cup in 2006.
They’re glaring examples of how drafting impact players could turn a franchise’s fortunes around.
It wasn’t until the 2005-2006 season before Ward got a spot on the roster, while Staal stepped onto the ice with Carolina in 2003-2004.
Surrounded by established veterans like Francis and current assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour, among others, Staal established an explosive early start to his career.
He posted 31 points (11g, 20a) during his rookie season.
Due to the NHL’s canceled season in 2004-2005, he played for the team’s American Hockey League (AHL) franchise at the time, the Lowell Lockmonsters, and continued to developed his scoring touch.
Ward joined him in Lowell that year and began his pro career by posting a 27-17-7 record with six shutouts.
Staal kept a point-per-game pace to finish with 77 points (26g, 51a) and a plus-37 rating as both helped the team advance to the second round of the AHL playoffs.
With the NHL back in operation the next season, both players rejoined the Hurricanes on a full-time basis and helped put together that historic 2005-2006 season in Carolina.
Both established career-defining results during that year.
Staal scored a team-leading 100 points (45g, 55a) in the regular season and 28 points (9g, 19a) in the playoffs, while Ward’s 14-8-2 record was enough to prep him to put together an exceptional playoff performance, a 15-8 finish with two shutouts, that earned him the Conn Smythe Trophy as he carried the load to backstop the Hurricanes to their first and only Stanley Cup win.
They reached the top of the mountain as young players in a short period of time and etched their legacy into league and franchise history.
That’s what teams hope for when they make their first overall selection in the NHL Draft, of which the 2015 edition takes place at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla. on Friday.
Now established veterans, both Staal and Ward are on the other side of the puck and facing challenges to remain with the team that drafted them – the one they helped build history with by winning a championship.
With the exception of a run to the Eastern Conference final during the 2008-2009 season, Carolina has struggled to make the postseason a reality, let alone even having any thought of winning another Cup.
As the captain of the team since the midpoint of the 2009-2010 season, Staal has had to bear the responsibility of answering questions at the end of each regular season on why Carolina hasn’t made the playoffs.
The comments have become eerily similar because after all, the possible reasons and hopes to see a change have become frustratingly futile to describe in any different manner any more.
“I know everybody’s frustrated,” Staal said during exit interviews following the 2013-2014 season.
“I know our fans are frustrated. I know management, staff, players – I mean everyone is. That’s not a secret. That needs to change, so it’s a chance for us to regroup again this summer. It’s the same story, but nothin’ else you can do. You look forward to starting next season.”
With a year remaining on a contract that pays him an average of $8.25 million, Staal’s production is not close to what it was during that early peak in his career, and in the opinion of many observers, no longer justifies the cost.
Ward is in the same situation as his $6.3 million salary locks up a considerable amount of the team’s cap space with returns on investment that have not been up to par in recent years.
The pressure to make the playoffs has increased to the point where Francis, and former president and general manager Jim Rutherford before him, had to more seriously consider whether to try to move one or both of the organization’s two most expensive and established assets, the faces of the franchise, in order to make room for new ones.
The speculation and discussion of the need to do so existed for longer than that.
It’s the challenge that faces an organization that has shown and rewarded loyalty almost to a fault throughout its history.
Yes, Staal can claim to still be the team’s top scoring leader since the 2009-2010 season, but that individual accomplishment has not helped the Hurricanes earn a spot in the postseason.
Will he be willing to assume a support role to the team’s younger up-and-coming stars to help them lead this team to the playoffs and another Cup, and at a lower salary – like others did for him?
Is Staal’s ego large enough, yet his attitude mature enough to accept the reality that he may not complete and celebrate a career legacy playing with one team if he doesn’t approach it that way?
His end-of-season comments back in April indicated he’s willing to work to compete, but showed that such a reality is still difficult for him to accept.
“I know I can play,” Staal said.
“I’m going to play in this league for a lot more years. So if they don’t want me here, I will play somewhere else. But I care about a lot of people in this organization and these fans, so I would like to be part of getting better and taking another step. But if they don’t feel I’m part of that, then you obviously take a look at other roads.”
As the first and only goalkeeper that Carolina has ever selected first in the NHL draft, Ward’s price tag is a major concern.
However, the inability of this team to draft and effectively develop netminders has handcuffed it when considering moving Ward.
Other teams don’t want to pay that price for a goalie who’s struggled with injuries in recent years while Carolina doesn’t have much depth in immediately filling a backup spot, even if Anton Khudobin was considered to take over the starter position.
Daniel Altshuller, the team’s third round pick (69th overall) in the 2012 draft, was the only prospect keeper under contract until Alex Nedeljkovic, Carolina’s second pick (37th overall) in 2014, as well as Rasmus Tirronen were signed in late March.
“Goalies can play until they’re 37 and are in good shape,” Hurricanes pro scout and then goalkeeper coach Greg Stefan said three years ago referring to Stanley-Cup winning keeper Tim Thomas as an example of one who continued to make successful strides very late in his career.
As he watched Altshuller during his first prospect camp, Stefan continued, “For the young guys, if they have the talent, the desire, and stay healthy – you just never know, you really don’t. It can happen in a lot of different ways.”
To both Staal and Ward’s defense, each have struggled through and recovered from significant injuries in 2013 that have taken them time to get back to a form that has them still leading the team.
They’ve each endured through a handful of coaching changes and dozens of teammates throughout the years in trying to become part of a Stanley-Cup contending team again.
At this point in their careers, as they ponder their future when negotiating potential contract extensions with Francis, they must consider what they value more, individual money or truly cementing their legacy with the Carolina Hurricanes as the true team players and leaders they are being asked to be.
If individual money wins out, Carolina has a deep NHL Draft on Friday to select a few more impact prospects to develop and who will hopefully achieve the same success Staal and Ward did early in their careers.
The downside of such as scenario is that one or both players may not be around to share in it.
The choice is up to them.