If anyone in the Carolina Hurricanes’ locker room best understands the uneasiness surrounding the NHL trade deadline, it’s Lee Stempniak.
The veteran forward has been dealt by teams four separate times at the deadline in the past, forced to pack up quickly and leave his family behind.
“It’s always hard and when you have kids it takes on a whole new meaning,” Stempniak said this week. “With a trade, and the moving, it’s always a big shock.
“I think there’s definitely some tension, maybe some anxiousness in the room when it gets close to the deadline. Right now we’re not in the playoffs. You’d be naive not to expect some changes.”
A year ago, the Canes were 10 points out of playoff position as the deadline approached and there was no guesswork about what general manager Ron Francis would do. Defenseman Ron Hainsey and forward Viktor Stalberg, both with expiring contracts at the end of the 2016-17 season, were dealt away as the Canes became a seller.
The Canes are in a better, if intriguing position this season – one point below the playoff cutline in the Eastern Conference after Thursday’s games – with the deadline set Monday.
“We’re in a lot better place than we were in the past,” center Jordan Staal said. “We’re right there with them.”
With 22 games remaining in the regular season, Staal and the Canes believe they can reach the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2009.
“We’ve been a little inconsistent as of late but there’s been a lot of games we’ve played great,” Staal said. “We just have to continue to push.”
It’s hard to say what Francis has in mind for the deadline, whether the Canes will look to add a player or leave the team intact. Thomas Dundon, the team’s new majority owner, has been in town the past week and has an opinion on how to handle personnel changes.
“I think there’s a lot of work you have to do to make those decisions,” Dundon said in a recent interview. “I don’t want to be emotional about the record or the results.”
The Canes’ record is 27-23-10 after going 0-2-1 their past three games. Two of the losses were to the New Jersey Devils, who have a good grip on the first wild-card spot and added speedy forward Michael Grabner in a trade Thursday night with the New York Rangers.
The Canes will look to end their winless streak Friday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, 8-1-1 in their past 10 games and chasing the Washington Capitals for first place in the Metropolitan Division. And looking more like a team capable of contending for a third straight Stanley Cup.
For Carolina, the Pens game is the first of a back-to-back set — the Canes are in Detroit on Saturday to face the Red Wings.
Then, deadline time. Decision time.
Stempniak, 35, is in the final year of a two-year contract with the Canes but did not play until Jan. 12 this season as he recovered from injuries. He does have playoff experience, the most recent with the Winnipeg Jets in 2015.
Center Derek Ryan, 31, also is due to become an unrestricted free agent after the season and has had his name pop up in the NHL trade scuttlebutt.
“I haven’t read any of that but have had some friends message me,” Ryan said. “I mean, right-handed centers who can produce points, I guess some teams might be looking for that. But we’ll see what happens. Obviously, Raleigh is where I want to be.”
For Staal, the trade deadline two years ago was one of the low points of his NHL career. Eric Staal, the Canes’ captain, a longtime franchise cornerstone and one of stars of the 2006 Stanley Cup champs, was sent to the New York Rangers just hours before Carolina’s home game with the St. Louis Blues.
Just like that – Eric Staal gone.
Jordan Staal said the possibility of being traded weighed on his big brother for months, saying, “It was on his mind and it bothered him.” The same was true for Jordan Staal, traded to the Canes from Pittsburgh in 2012 and signed a long-term contract extension with Carolina.
“It’s all part of the business and out of your control,” Jordan Staal said. “You can’t dwell on that kind of stuff. What we know is there are 22 games left and there’s a lot of points and anything can happen.”