Eric Staal's Future with Carolina Hurricanes Growing Shakier as Slump Continues

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Eric Staal's Future with Carolina Hurricanes Growing Shakier as Slump Continues
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Staal's worst spring of his career continued with another costly, lackluster effort in the Carolina Hurricanes' 3-2 overtime loss Saturday night.

Staal failed to find the back of the net for the 14th time in his last 15 appearances as the Columbus Blue Jackets rallied back from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits in Raleigh.

No. 12 has just one goal, eight assists and a minus-five rating since the beginning of March. The team he captains, meanwhile, is 6-8-1 over that time span and has fallen almost assuredly out of the playoff hunt.

Eric Staal chases the puck, leaving Ryan Johansen wide open in the slot for the Blue Jackets' overtime winner Saturday night.

March has devolved Staal's already unimpressive campaign into arguably the worst of his career. For a player who has historically struggled in autumn but improved over the course of each season, three consecutive calendar seasons of ineffectiveness is more than worrisome.

Through 71 games played, the former second overall pick has just 17 goals, on pace for his lowest total since his 11-goal rookie year of 2003-04.

Worse yet, Staal's production has declined not just in 2013-14 but steadily since 2011. His 24 tallies in 2011-12 were then the lowest of his career since 2003-04; his hot start to the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign quickly faded to a mere six goals over the season's last 28 matches.

While supporters can point to his 8.5 shooting percentage this season (compared to a career average of 11.0) as a sign of his poor luck, it's also worth noting that Staal is producing less even on the shot clock than ever before.

His 2.83 shots per game this season is his lowest rate since 2003-04; his shots-per-game rate has actually declined from one season to the next for the last six seasons (down from a whopping 4.54 in 2008-09).

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Discipline is also emerging as a perennial issue in his performance, as Staal is also on pace for the most penalties of his career.

He's accumulated 72 penalty minutes in 71 games, including 22 over the last 16 games. Only six players around the NHL have taken more minors than No. 12's 35 this season; only seven players around the NHL took more minors than No. 12's 22 last season.

Gregg Forwerck/Getty Images

Simply put, Staal's play over the last few seasons should do more than jeopardize his captaincy status.

It should attract the scrutiny of expected future general manager Ron Francis regarding the final two seasons of his contract carrying a team-high $8.25 million salary-cap hit.

It should cue the motivational fire and anger out of wobbly head coach Kirk Muller, if such fire does exist within his placid personality.

And it should call his future as a franchise cornerstone of the Carolina Hurricanes into rational, if not feasible, question.

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Indeed, brother Jordan Staal's presenceand nine remaining seasons under contract at $6 million perall but ensures that Eric will remain glued in Carolina for the next two years, barring a shocking blockbuster move from Francis.

If Cam Ward is shipped out this summer, however, the floodgates might open. Such a blockbuster move might be remotely possible—and the Marc Staal-led New York Rangers would eagerly come calling. 

If Francis brings the clean slate, sans-Jim Rutherford loyalties mindset many 'Canes fans have dreamt of for so long, Staal could feel his seat warm at least a few degrees.

Mark Jones / Freelance

Nonetheless, no matter how the coming offseason goes down in Raleigh, Eric Staal is undoubtedly approaching a 2014-15 season that could define the remainder of his career.

He'll turn 30 on October 29, a major milestone for superstars in sports and a sign that the prime years are coming to a close.

Coming to a close without a single postseason appearance since age 24.

Does Eric Staal deserve to be the Hurricanes captain?

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For Staal to remain an integral part of the Carolina franchise, he not only needs an encouraging eight-game run to finish this current season but also an explosive, confidence-renewing campaign from day one next fall. 

His team is on the verge of complete deflation. His leadership position is increasingly threatened by a 22-year-old young defenseman and 33-year-old fourth-line center. His impact and ability has never been doubted more. His enormous contract is nearing an unfortunately timed end.

The seas around Eric Staal have never been more turbulent.

And for both his and the Carolina Hurricanes' sakes, he must revive his career regardless.

 

Mark Jones has been a Carolina Hurricanes Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report since 2009. Visit his profile to read more, or follow him on Twitter.

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