It was the spring of 2004. The memory of the great Stanley Cup Finals run of 2002 had been mostly washed away by two painful seasons of disappointing Canes hockey. The Canes missed the playoffs in 2002-03 and was even worse in 2003-04. At the point where the 2003-04 season was unofficially categorized as another playoff miss, Rod Brind’Amour was a 34-year old veteran who was running out of time to etch his name on the Stanley Cup. There was plenty talk in the media that it might make sense for him to move on from the Hurricanes who seemed to be entering rebuilding mode. Jeff O’Neill, one of the team’s other offensive leaders, did end up leaving the team via trade heading to Toronto just before the 2005-06 season, so he could have a better chance to win the Stanley Cup (and also because of personal reasons).
To this day, I still remember Rod Brind’Amour’s responses and increasingly bristly tone when he was asked about his desire to move on and join a Cup contender. He said all of the right things about the team definitely needing to play better. He also regularly and noticeable used the words ‘we’ and ‘I’ including himself in that group. It is my personal interpretation of what was said and how, but I very much read an ownership type mentality into his answers. And based on the way he seemed to be irritated about answering the ‘stay or go’ questions multiple times, I truly believe that he was not just saying the right words. He meant them. The Carolina Hurricanes were Rod Brind’Amour’s team. He was its captain and leader. And while probably as disappointed as anyone with their lot in hockey at the time, his goal was to improve and help the rest of the team improve, not abandon ship/get out of Dodge.
About two years later Rod Brind’Amour won a Stanley Cup as captain of the Hurricanes and forever etched his name in both team and NHL history. Rod Brind’Amour was a good player and a liked player before that fateful game on June 19, 2006, but that magical night and the season that led up to it became his Hurricanes legacy. It also plotted his path to later putting #17 in the rafters at PNC Arena where he will forever be recognized as one of the greats in team history.
Fast forward to the summer of 2015. The Hurricanes are again mired in a playoff slump ‘like none other.’ The PNC Arena parking lot has not seen late spring and summer tailgating for playoff hockey since 2009. And the Canes have yet to play a playoff game since Eric Staal began wearing the ‘C.’ Eric Staal suddenly sits at 30 years old, is playing on a team that was not very good in 2014-15 and will not be projected to be good in 2015-16 either. He has a contract that ends next summer and offers a path to potentially greener pastures and mathematically a better chance at the playoffs and another Stanley Cup. But he is the leader of this team right now just like Rod Brind’Amour was in 2004. And with another 3-4 year stint in Raleigh, he will assure that his #12 is next in the rafters at PNC Arena (and that is even if he does not make the playoffs).
Ron Francis also has a say in this situation obviously, especially if Eric Staal’s agent pushes for fair value in his next deal, but I think Eric Staal is very much standing at the same crossroads that Rod Brind’Amour faced more than ten years ago. What will the result be this time? Will Eric Staal stay and lead the team to better days and glory like Rod Brind’Amour did ten years ago? Or is it time for a new leader to step in and lead a Hurricanes resurgence?