Eric Staal's future with Hurricanes still unclear

The Carolina Hurricanes' surprising inclusion in the the Eastern Conference playoff chase adds an unexpected element to the Eric Staal storyline.

It is unclear whether vying for a playoff spot will influence how Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis views the situation with his pending unrestricted-free-agent captain.

Francis wasn't tipping his hand late last week when we chatted over the phone. But I suspect it might make Staal himself ponder how much fun he's having seeing his team in a playoff race. Armed with a full no-movement clause, he's got a huge say in his own future.

Either way, Francis will be having a meeting of the minds with Staal's veteran agent, Rick Curran, sooner rather than later, a conversation that has been anticipated for a long time.

"We touched base last month and agreed to touch base towards the end of this month to see where things were," Francis said. "So, we haven't had that conversation yet. There's still six weeks until we get to the deadline. Hopefully we're still in the hunt."

Echoed Curran on Sunday: "We've had a number of meetings and telephone conversations since last summer, but we've never really set a critical timetable. The last time we talked, Ron suggested he'd prefer we wait until some time toward the end of January when he hoped to be in a better position to have a more meaningful discussion."

The possibilities:

  • The Hurricanes re-sign Staal at a paycut from his current $8.25 million salary cap hit. I think it would have to be really, really reasonable for Carolina to go down this route.

  • Carolina decides it needs the asset(s) it can net from a trade, asks Staal to waive his no-movement clause and explores the market among the contenders to see whether there's a fit out there.

  • The Hurricanes, even if unable to sign Staal before the trade deadline, still decide to keep their captain for the stretch and potential playoff run.

  • And finally, Staal points to his no-movement clause and says he'd like to hang with his brother Jordan Staal and play out the season in Carolina given the playoff possibility. That's certainly his right.

Now, if the Hurricanes fall out of the playoff race, the decision-making gets clearer.

The Hurricanes are two points out of a wild-card spot, heading into Tuesday's games, although four other teams are sandwiched between them and that spot.

Thirteen teams are fighting for eight playoff spots in the East (although the Washington Capitals are running away with the conference lead). The smart money isn't on rebuilding Carolina getting in, but it's certainly possible.

"We're like a lot of teams, we're all bunched together and we're trying to see which horses are going to break free from the pack here," Francis said. "There's still a little time left [before the trade deadline]. We'll just stay patient and see where things go."

To be sure, Eric Staal isn't the player he was once; the 31-year-old's production has dipped the past three seasons. He's got 28 points in 47 games this season and is on pace for 49 points, which would be his lowest tally since his rookie season in 2003-04. Still, he's a top-six center, which is a rare trade-deadline commodity. And a change of scenery on a deeper team could boost his offensive impact. I believe a few teams have already checked in on him, and there will be interest if he's ever put on the market.

My sense -- and it's truly just my gut feeling -- is that Francis is dedicated to the long-term, big-picture view with his team and he's not going to let anything cloud that path. He's done a solid job of refitting this team with younger pieces. That process will continue.

One look at Carolina's impressive young blueline corps proves the future looks bright: Justin Faulk (23, future captain), Noah Hanifin (turns 19 on Jan. 25), Brett Pesce (21) and Jaccob Slavin (21) are all playing important minutes. Haydn Fleury (19) should be doing so next season.

The blue line is the key to Carolina's chances of building into a contender over the next several seasons. But the surprising thing is how impactful those kids have already been this season.

"I'd be lying if I didn't say it's a little ahead of where I thought we would be in their development," Francis said. "I firmly believed they were good and were going to play; didn't think it would happen as quick as it has or play as well as they have. So that's been a positive for us."

One more name to remember as we approach the Feb. 29 trade deadline: Jeff Skinner. He's got three more years on his deal after this season at $6 million per. That's a contract that looked unmovable before the season. But he's had a nice season and, more importantly, stayed healthy. If another team accepts that the speedy, skilled winger has put his concussion problems behind him, I think there's no question Carolina would listen, at the very least.

Skinner is also represented by Curran, as are Jordan Staal and Cam Ward on the Hurricanes. All roads lead through Curran, in some ways, if Carolina wants to continue to get younger, but the respected agent has a very good relationship with Francis, so I don't see that as an issue.