This was way back in October, when it was easy to think the season held promise for the Toronto Maple Leafs. This was way back when the rumour mill was ginning out trade rumors focused on haves and have-nots; on teams with Connor McDavid on their mind; others with Conn Smythe on their mind.
For a while, the internet and television and radio was lousy with rumours that the Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes were batting eyes at each other over Canes centre Eric Staal. It seemed a good fit: the big centre the Leafs have needed since Mats Sundin, in return perhaps for a pair of young players such as Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner.
Predictably with deals that appear to be perfect fits on the surface, nothing transpired. Monday, Staal was on the ice at the Air Canada Centre and found himself in the second fight of his NHL career – against Dion Phaneuf – and then scored an empty-net goal (his second tally) to finish off a 4-1 win. Staal teed up a shot with Phaneuf standing between him and the goal, and fired the puck at (and by) Phaneuf. Quite a calling card.
It’s a sign of how far the Leafs have fallen this season that Staal could put up a performance like that without creating a round of wistful dreams visualizing him in a Maple Leafs jersey. Frankly, if you were Eric Staal, why the hell would you want to be a Maple Leaf?
Monday’s game was hardly a Chamber of Commerce outing by the locals: jerseys on the ice, and a surprising lack of resolve on the part of the Leafs, particularly when it came to seeing their captain embarrassed on home ice.
I understand Phaneuf’s a big guy who can take care of himself … but how many captains would have that done to them on their own ice without a response of some kind from their teammates?
It wasn’t just Staal’s hard shot in the direction of Phaneuf that was so brazen; it was the way Staal glanced back in the direction of the Leafs captain as he turned to celebrate. Phaneuf glided slightly toward Staal, then veered away.
These things become more noticeable when a team is playing poorly – things such as the manner in which Hurricanes defenceman Brett Bellemore interceded in another scrum involving Staal and Phaneuf along the boards in the second period, laughing in Phaneuf’s face – but this was something else, entirely. Who were these Leafs to later suggest fans who threw jerseys on the ice were showing disrespect to an historical logo?
Staal, who has another year and $9.5 million left on his seven-year, $57.5 million deal with the Hurricanes, suggested earlier this season that he might waive his blanket no-trade clause if a deal were arranged with the Leafs. Now?
“Now that we’re getting our guys healthy again, you’re seeing people playing in the roles they’re supposed to be in,” said the 30-year-old Staal. “It’s been fun, lately. We’re looking to take steps, here, that are needed to continue.”
Staal has, along with brother Jordan, started to hit his stride. Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters has put them on the same line, often using Eric as a winger for Jordan, who is four years his junior.
The Hurricanes were an early-season pick to be in the mix for Lotto-McDavid; their 37 points leave them tied with the Arizona Coyotes for the third-worst total in the NHL. Staal said he realizes that at this point his endeavours are doing little more than raising his trade value, but his awareness of the approaching trade deadline should not be mistaken for wariness or uncertainty.
“I have a no-movement clause and nobody has come up to ask me to waive it,” he said. “My focus is on this group right now - this team. I’m having fun with Jordan; we’re starting to generate Grade ‘A’ scoring chances, again.
“These things are going to happen because of where we are in the standings right now. I understand that. But all I’m doing is focusing on this team and what I can do to help them. Can’t worry about that other stuff.”
What a season this has been for the Leafs. At one point, adding Eric Staal seemed like a dream scenario, maybe even for both sides. Now? If you’re Eric Staal, why on Earth would you want to bother getting involved with Toronto at this time?