Jordan Staal’s first turn at being captain of the Hurricanes didn’t go all that well.
It certainly wasn’t his fault. Since-disgraced coach Bill Peters split the duties between Staal and Justin Faulk by creating a bizarre co-captaincy that ensured neither would lead the locker room, all while Justin Williams — who was brought back to the franchise that summer specifically to inject a winning attitude and accountability — was left without a letter at all.
It was the beginning of the end for both Peters, who resigned after the season, and GM Ron Francis, who was demoted in March 2018 and let go altogether the next month.
Williams was rightfully installed as captain the following season, and the team — led by new coach Rod Brind’Amour — returned to the postseason for the first time in a decade and made an improbable run to the Eastern Conference Final.
When Williams didn’t return for the start of the next season while weighing retirement, Brind’Amour looked to Staal for the captaincy.
In an era when NHL captains are often the team’s top scorer — or at least once were — or a No. 1 defenseman, Staal is a throwback.
He’s not a veteran superstar in the twilight of his career like Dave Andreychuk on Tampa Bay’s 2004 Stanley Cup winner or an adversary whose brutality strikes fear into opponents like Devils defenseman and two-time Cup captain Scott Stevens.
Sunday’s game against the Penguins showed everyone exactly who the 34-year-old Staal is.
In the third period with Carolina trailing 2-1, Staal won a board battle at the end of his shift and then created the screen that led to Brady Skjei’s tying goal.
“He’s usually there,” Skjei said of Staal being the screen on his goal, “and he’s a big body, so I’m not surprised that the goalie couldn’t see that one.”
He then scored the game-winner, cycling with linemate Jordan Martinook before finishing off a Jesper Fast pass.
“That’s what he does,” Brind’Amour said. “I don’t know what else to say. … You think of how they score, and that’s kind of how it goes.”
Then with Pittsburgh goalie Casey DeSmith on the bench for an extra attacker, Staal — who had uncharacteristically lost 10 of 15 faceoffs on the night — won four straight defensive zone draws against former teammate Sidney Crosby. Crosby, by the way, has taken more offensive zone faceoffs (3,605) than any other player since the 2017-18 season, winning more than 56% of them.
“You know when it counts that’s when Jordo comes up big,” Brind’Amour said.
It’s all in a day’s work for Staal, whose offensive numbers (eight goals and 12 points this season) never pop off the page but his contributions go well beyond the scoresheet.
“Jordo’s a beast,” forward Derek Stepan said after the win. “There’s no secret. He’s played a really long time. You look at his game and not only is his goal big and the faceoffs are big, but on (Skjei’s) goal I think it was a 1-on-3. And he’s able to take a hit, puck gets out to Skjeisy, it’s in the back of the net, it’s a tie game. And those are the things that our group follows and that’s why he’s our leader.”
Which brings us back to why Staal is the perfect captain for the Hurricanes. Staal’s leadership is exhibited in his day-to-day actions.
Even in his 17th season, Staal is among the most in-shape players on the team and one of the toughest to play against in the league.
“He’s hard to play against,” Skjei said. “I’ve been on the other side of it. It’s not fun playing against him.”
That’s reminiscent of the only player to captain the Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup — the famously fit and consistent Brind’Amour.
Bob Gainey also comes to mind when comparing Staal to past players. Gainey won four straight Stanley Cups from 1976-79 as a player with the Canadiens, the defensive bedrock of a forward group loaded with offensive talent.
He also won four straight Selke trophies from 1978-81, second only to Patrice Bergeron’s five, and then in 1982 was named Montreal captain following Serge Savard’s retirement.
In 1986 — no longer at the peak of his defensive powers — he led the Habs to the Stanley Cup, scoring three game-winning goals while claiming his fifth and final championship.
Both Gainey and Brind’Amour had the help of a rookie goaltender — Patrick Roy for Montreal and Cam Ward for Carolina — in their Cup captaincy season, and Staal may very well have to lean on rookie Pyotr Kochetkov if the Hurricanes are going to make a run to the second title in franchise history.
As Gainey and Brind’Amour proved, it doesn’t take a Gretzky or Messier, a Cournoyer or Beliveau to be a Cup-winning captain. It takes a player who knows how to lead the way with his own style.
And as Crosby and the Penguins learned Sunday, when Jordan Staal wants something, it’s hard to keep him from getting it.