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Eric Staal agrees to seven-year, US$57M deal with Hurricanes

Eric Staal responds to media questions following a practice session Friday April 25, 2008 at the Colisee Pepsi in Quebec. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Jacques Boissinot

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Eric Staal responds to media questions following a practice session Friday April 25, 2008 at the Colisee Pepsi in Quebec. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Jacques Boissinot

RALEIGH, N.C. - The Carolina Hurricanes signed Eric Staal to a seven-year contract extension Thursday.

The deal worth US$57.75 million will pay the centre an average of $8.25 million starting in 2009-10 and will last through the 2015-16 season. "When you get a player this young that's this good, you have to make sure you keep him long term," general manager Jim Rutherford said. "And if you don't, your team, your franchise will go backwards."

Rutherford said the parties "fine-tuned" the deal's basic terms Wednesday, a day before Staal publicly signed the contract during an elaborate ceremony at the RBC Center that included a two-minute video tribute.

The 23-year-old two-time all-star, MVP of last year's all-star game and key component of the Carolina team that won the 2006 Stanley Cup had been discussing the new deal with team officials all summer, with Rutherford making a long-term deal one of his top priorities heading into training camp, which starts next week.

"I wasn't stressing and wanting to make sure it was done before camp," Staal said. "But it is a nice feeling now to have it out of the way and not get the questions the whole season about an extension ... and focus on the hockey.

"Obviously, for me at a young age, to be able to lift the Stanley Cup over my head was something that I dreamed out my whole life," he added. "I want to do it again."

Staal will get a $1 million raise next year and will make $6 million during the first year of the deal, with his salary escalating to $9.5 million in 2015-16, Rutherford said. The Hurricanes' first-round draft pick in 2003 is entering the final year of the three-year deal he signed in 2006 that will pay him $5 million this season.

Staal, the centre of coach Peter Laviolette's No. 1 line, had 100 points three seasons ago in leading Carolina to its first Cup. The Hurricanes haven't made the playoffs since, though he bounced back from a sub-par 2006-07 season with 38 goals and 44 assists last season.

"Over the last couple seasons, it's been a ton of fun. Obviously, the last two not as much fun as the year before that," Staal said. "We've got to get back to the playoffs, back to where we should be, and I'm very grateful for this and for being here a long time."

The lucrative deal likely means Staal - the team's highest-paid player - will remain in the leadership role in which he blossomed last season, earning a permanent "A" on his sweater.

Rutherford insisted the rich contract won't hurt the team's bottom line in the future, stressing the Hurricanes would be significantly worse off had they allowed Staal to test free agency.

"We think over time, the way the market has responded to this team and to hockey, that we'll be in a stronger position financially to do this," Rutherford said.

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