Staal trade makes ‘Canes contenders in East

By trading for Jordan Staal on Friday night, the Carolina Hurricanes went from an interesting team with legitimate playoff aspirations for 2012-13 to a possible Eastern Conference contender.

And in hockey, being a contender means you can win the Stanley Cup, as the Los Angeles Kings proved this spring.

Staal, who is a free agent following next season, recently turned down a 10-year extension from the Pittsburgh Penguins. The team didn’t want to risk letting him get away for essentially nothing, so they dealt the 23-year-old to Carolina for the team’s first-round pick in Friday’s draft, which was the eighth selection overall, established center Brandon Sutter and prospect Brian Dumoulin.

On the surface, the Canes (33-33-16, 82 points this past season) gave up plenty to possibly have a guy for just one season. Sutter, 23, came on nicely last season further establishing himself as a solid second-line center. He was also an important piece of the team’s internal chemistry, which has long been an important ingredient for success to general manager Jim Rutherford and the team’s ownership. It has become a significant part of the Hurricanes’ culture.

Carolina’s recent success in the draft means moving the eighth pick could be a big loss down the road, especially if Staal bolts after next season.

But that’s where the genius in this move comes into play. Staal isn’t going to leave.

His older brother and All-Star Eric Staal is a team captain and the heart and soul of the franchise. The transition with the younger Staal should be seamless, and since he’s more potent offensively than Sutter, it’s an immediate improvement.

Sutter was a fine defender, but so is Jordan Staal, who is 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds and had 25 goal and 25 assists last season, his seventh in the league. The gain is significant, and he will make his line better than Sutter could.

“Jordan is an elite two-way player who possesses a rare combination of speed, size, scoring ability and defensive ability,” Rutherford said in a release Friday night. “For his young age, he has a wealth of NHL experience, including winning the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009. And he is obviously a natural fit for our team in joining our captain, his older brother Eric.”

Then take into consideration the juice injection this will give Eric, who struggled for much of last season but played very well down the stretch when he and his mates grew accustomed to first-year (hired in late November) coach Kirk Muller’s system, and it’s not unfair to expect a return to the 35-goal, 80-point seasons that were pretty common from the captain not long ago.

The Canes needed more offense and they got it. And now the pieces are in place to more than sneak into the playoffs, something the franchise has missed out on for the last three campaigns. With Jeff Skinner healthy for a season, Justin Faulk a year older, Cam Ward doing his thing in goal, and the others improving their games, why not put a little pressure on this club to play some hockey as the weather increasingly warms outside?

Perhaps more tantalizing is that if the Hurricanes can re-sign Jordan and keep him in Raleigh for at least another five to seven years, it’s not inconceivable to expect this franchise to make a run or more at the Stanley Cup like it did in 2002 (lost to Detroit) and 2006 (beat Edmonton).

Eric Staal will be 27 when next season begins, Ward will be 28, Tuomo Ruutu 29, Jamie McBain 24, Skinner 20, Faulk 20, and teamed with the newest North Carolinian named Staal, that’s a young, impressive group capable of winning a ton of hockey games into the future.

Friday’s move by Rutherford and the Canes was a risk, but it was time this franchise went out on a ledge with its personnel. The timing was right, the circumstance was right, and so was the player.