During a 2 p.m. press conference at the RBC Center, Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford made an announcement that came as no surprise to anyone: that Eric Staal’s camp had agreed to a seven-year, $57.75 million contract. The contract, which will go into effect after the 2008-09 season, is the largest ever for the ‘Canes and will put Staal among the highest-paid players in the league.

‘When a franchise gets a star player like Eric, you need to keep that player or your franchise will get in trouble,” Rutherford said. ‘We’re very thankful that he committed to this team and to this market.”

Staal was to become an unrestricted free agent after next season, but he called the decision to stay in Carolina a ‘no-brainer,” saying he and his wife have found a home in the Triangle.

‘It was just a matter of feeling comfortable on both sides,” Staal said. ‘Right now it feels pretty good to know we’re going to be here for a long time.”

An NHL All-Star in 2007 and 2008, Staal tallied 45 goals and 55 assists in 2005-2006, then became the second-youngest player to lead the league in playoff points en route to the Hurricanes’ first Stanley Cup. Despite these impressive stats, Rutherford said the negotiation process went very smoothly. The contract was completed and signed quickly, by the NHL’s standards.

‘It wasn’t difficult,” Rutherford said. ‘Both sides felt confident that we would get it done sometime before camp.”

With the flick of a pen, Carolina’s star center is in Raleigh until 2016. Though Staal will certainly not be wanting for much in the very near futurehe will make more than $9 million during the last three years of his new contractRutherford said he could have potentially asked for more.

‘I do think that because he likes it here a lot and because he understands that we’re a smaller-market team that he did take less to stay here,” Rutherford said.

Staal is expected to fill a larger leadership role this year, as he did when team captain Rod Brind’Amour went down with a torn ACL in mid-February of last season. And what better way to start than with a leader’s salary?

‘It is a nice feeling now to have it out of the way, and just focus on trying to help our team get back to the playoffs, which is where we need to be,” Staal said. Kate Shefte