With 40 goals for playoffs-bound Wild, Staal has right fit

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Eric Staal was coming off his least productive NHL season since he was a teenage rookie with Carolina when Minnesota took a flier on him two summers ago to add some depth at centre.

The three-year contract was modest for a player with Staal’s ability and accomplishments. The expectations were, too. Three consecutive seasons of decline in points per game, after all, don’t provide a hint that the scoring touch or passing knack is primed for resurgence.

Bruce Boudreau could see the rebound potential, though. His first day of training camp with the Wild happened to be Staal’s practice debut with his new club, and a strong impression was made on the new head coach.

“I said, ‘You know what? Everybody was wrong,’” Boudreau said. “Because he did the skate test on the very first day, and he blew everybody out of the water. So I said to the staff, ‘He should be able to play for us.’”

Staal has done much more for the Wild than simply prove he can keep up and stabilize a key position with some savviness and leadership. Nobody on the team has scored more since he arrived, and with 40 goals this season he’s tied for sixth in the league through Monday’s games.

“I never thought a specific number was a goal. I don’t ever usually think like that,” Staal said. “Once you start a season, it can go a lot of different ways, but once the puck starts hitting the back of the net and you’re gaining confidence that way, you want to hold on to it as long as you can and accumulate as much as you can to help your team win.”

Staal became just the second player in NHL history, joining Gordie Howe, to record a 40-goal season at least nine years apart with none in between. Slumps can factor into that, but so does dedication.

“Look, he’s won a Stanley Cup. He’s won an Olympic medal. He’s got all the money that he’s ever going to need,” Boudreau said. “But when he came here he wanted to prove to the world that he’s still a really good player, and to me he has.”

The lanky 33-year-old with the left-handed shot has been a big reason why the Wild, despite some rough patches of the schedule and significant injury absences by several of their best skaters, have clinched a spot in the playoffs for the sixth straight season.

“You want that, especially as a player who’s in the second half of his career. You want to make sure you’re in a spot to try to win again, and coming here I felt gave me that chance,” said Staal, the second overall pick in the 2003 draft who won the Stanley Cup in 2006 at age 21 but only returned to the playoffs once more with the Hurricanes. “We’ve still got some work to do here, but hopefully we can finish strong.”

Staal only has one goal-less stretch on his ledger longer than four games in a row, when he played six consecutive contests without scoring from Jan. 9-22. He still contributed four assists over that span. Not coincidentally, the Wild have only one losing streak larger than two. They dropped three in a row from Nov. 4-8.

“He’s a guy we’ve definitely looked to to help lead us,” said left wing Jason Zucker, one of the many linemates Staal has saddled up to this season — without, Boudreau said beamingly, a single complaint.

Durability has been one crucial component of his value, of course. Staal has yet to miss a game since signing the $10.5 million deal on July 1, 2016. The emotional steadiness he has contributed can’t be overlooked, either.

“He’s been through the best of teams. He’s been through the worst of teams. He’s been the leader on all of these teams,” Boudreau said. “He’s had to make sure he’s the steady one, because if he gets too high, maybe the rest of the group gets too high. If he was one to get too low, maybe everybody else would follow his lead.”

The Wild actually left Staal exposed in the expansion draft, banking on his age being less attractive to the Vegas Golden Knights. His salary cap hit is only the ninth-highest on the roster.

“If he was playing in Toronto, he’d be up for the MVP,” Boudreau said.

Settling in Minnesota was more than satisfying for Staal, with the perennial post-season opportunities and the relative proximity to his hometown of Thunder Bay, Manitoba, about a six-hour drive away. He and his wife, Tanya, have been able to raise sons Parker, Levi and Finley, in a similar northern culture and climate that he was raised in, delighting in seeing the boys at 8, 6 and 3 years old take to the local hockey rinks or eagerly hop on their sleds after the latest snowfall.

“All that stuff I grew up doing and loving, and now I’m kind of living it back through them,” Staal said. “It’s definitely made it a ton of fun.”

Just Posted

Updated: SUV smashes through fences and deck in Anders

Driver taken to hospital after SUV veered off 30th Avenue into Anders

Red Deer’s new ‘equity co-ordinator’ will promote tolerance

Andrea Lacoursiere was hired by city with Alberta Human Rights funding

More bridge work this summer in Red Deer’s Coronation Park

The park’s north bridge is being rebuilt to ensure safety

Man badly injured in off-road vehicle collision on Saturday

Incident happened in Mountain View County about 10:50 p.m.

Heat warning in effect for Central Alberta

Environment Canada has issued a heat warning for Central Alberta. Residents in… Continue reading

CFIA inspects after video shows pigs crammed into B.C. transport truck

The video shows pigs piled on top of one another in a transport truck on a “sweltering” hot day last week

Lava crashes through roof of Hawaii tour boat, injuring 23

HONOLULU — An explosion caused by lava oozing into the ocean sent… Continue reading

Banff holds blessing ceremony with Indigenous elders before letting bison roam

BANFF, Alta. — Several Indigenous elders were flown by helicopter into the… Continue reading

Research expedition looks at unseen depths of Labrador Sea ecosystem

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Last summer, a team of scientists returned from… Continue reading

Protesters camped outside Saskatchewan legislature taking province to court

REGINA — Protesters camped outside the Saskatchewan legislature say they are taking… Continue reading

British PM accepts key amendments from hardline Brexiteers

LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday accepted amendments to… Continue reading

‘City of icebergs:’ Study says 100s of Arctic glaciers shrinking, disappearing

The statistics in her recently published paper say it all: hundreds of… Continue reading

U.S. hits back with WTO challenge against Canada’s retaliatory tariffs

OTTAWA — The United States fired back Monday at the Canadian government’s… Continue reading

Croatia gears up to give heroes’ welcome to World Cup team

ZAGREB, Croatia — Fans are pouring in from throughout the country as… Continue reading

Most Read


Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month