RALEIGH, N.C. — Eric Staal gets to play with another brother, and the New York Rangers are loading up for the playoffs.
The Rangers acquired Carolina’s captain and the face of the Hurricanes franchise on Sunday.
In exchange for Staal, the Rangers sent centre Aleksi Saarela, who is currently playing in his native Finland, to Carolina along with New York’s second-round picks in each of the next two drafts.
Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton said the Carolina Hurricanes retained a portion of Staal’s $8.25 million cap hit, and New York has enough financial flexibility to add another “small-salary player if we wanted to.”
The Rangers trail first-place Washington by 16 points in the Metropolitan Division standings.
“We felt like he was one of the best, if not the best, player available on the market to give us what we’re looking for in our top nine,” Gorton said. “And that’s why we made the move.”
The deal – finalized about an hour before the Hurricanes hosted the St. Louis Blues and a day before the NHL trade deadline – wasn’t a total surprise from Carolina’s perspective.
The 31-year-old Staal had spent his entire 12-year career with the Hurricanes, who drafted him with the second overall pick in 2003.
He is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, once the final year of his seven-year, $55.75 million contract expires, and Carolina GM Ron Francis said he and Staal couldn’t agree on a new deal.
After a rocky start, Carolina mounted a late push for its first playoff berth since 2009 but has lost five of seven. The Hurricanes were four points behind Pittsburgh for the final wild-card spot with the Penguins having four games in hand.
“This group has played some really good hockey from December to this point, and they’re working hard, and you never want to have to do this,” Francis said. “But when you look at the big picture, and we couldn’t get comfortable on a contract term, then you can’t lose an asset like that for nothing. It’s too important to your franchise moving forward.”
The trade leaves goalie Cam Ward – who earned the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2006 as the franchise won its only Stanley Cup – as the only Hurricane left from any of the club’s playoff teams.
Staal leaves one younger brother, Jordan Staal, and will be united with another brother, Marc, who plays defence for the Rangers. A fourth Staal brother, Jared, is playing with South Carolina of the ECHL and had been in the Hurricanes’ organization.
Jordan Staal said his big brother “had a lot of emotions for the both of us.
“He’s been here a long time. He’s given his heart and soul to this team,” Jordan Staal said. “For it to end the way it did was unfortunate, but it is a business and we both understand that. Hopefully down the road we’ll find a way to get together and win like we wanted.”
Gorton says Eric Staal probably knows many of the Rangers because of Marc.
“But at the end of the day, it wasn’t really that I or anybody here felt like if we bring him here he’s going to be more comfortable because of what Marc’s doing,” Gorton said. “It’s all about Eric.”
The eldest Staal has scored 30-plus goals five times in his career, and the four-time All-Star has 10 goals and 23 assists in 63 games this season.
“We’re looking at a player that we think can be energized by this trade,” Gorton said.
Overall, Staal is the Hurricanes career leader in nearly every category, including 909 games played, 332 goals and 775 points. The only other players in the history of the Hartford-Carolina franchise who have skated in more games have their numbers hanging from the PNC Arena rafters – Francis and Glen Wesley.
Carolina coach Bill Peters said his team’s captaincy will remain vacant for the rest of the season.
Saarela was the Rangers’ third-round pick in last year’s draft. He currently plays for Assat Pori of the Finnish elite league. The 19-year-old leads the team with 18 goals and is second with 31 points in 46 games.