Eric Staal, West-leading Wild have been a perfect match

Published 9:04 am Monday, January 30, 2017

The offseason frenzy in professional sports that results from free agency can reduce players to commodities, assets to be obtained in order to fill a team’s need.

The open market has plenty to offer for a player, though, too, and the Minnesota Wild have been the perfect match for Eric Staal.

With a team-leading 16 goals at the All-Star break plus 25 assists to rank in the top 20 in the NHL in scoring, the lanky center has enjoyed a late-career resurgence at age 32 as the Wild have raced to the best record in the Western Conference.

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“I think he’s put into position to succeed. He’s not in a rebuild. He’s not playing left wing. I’m not saying he’s playing at the same level when they first won the Stanley Cup when he was a real young kid, but he’s in that same position: first line, power play, everything else,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said.

Boudreau and the Wild weren’t anticipating production like the 45 goals and 55 assists that Staal racked up in 2005-06 while leading Carolina to the Stanley Cup championship. His slump to 13 goals between the Hurricanes and New York Rangers last season, his lowest total since his rookie year, was not the expectation either.

“I think if you’ve been there and it fades away from you a little bit from the previous team, it’s really exciting to get it back,” Boudreau said. “That’s where he’s been his whole career, and I think he’s happy to be in that same position again.”

Minnesota is the closest NHL market and major city to Staal’s hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario, about a six-hour drive across the border from where he and his three brothers, all of whom have played at least one game with him in the league, were raised. Settling in with his wife and three sons was important for Staal when he surveyed his options last summer.

“I liked the vibe right away. These guys were excited to have me here, which is always nice,” Staal said. “You could feel that energy right off the bat when I first came on board, so it’s been a good transition for me personally and family-wise.”

Staal was also enticed by Boudreau, in his first season with Minnesota.

“I knew it was equal opportunity for everyone coming in,” said Staal, whose playing time was reduced with the Rangers after the trade last year. He had a five-game stint in the playoffs, only his second postseason experience since leading the playoffs with 28 points in 25 games for the 2006 champion Hurricanes.

David Backes (Boston), Loui Eriksson (Vancouver), Andrew Ladd (New York Islanders), Milan Lucic (Edmonton) and Kyle Okposo (Buffalo) were the headliners in free agency this season, all signing for many more millions and years than the $10.5 million, three-year contract Staal signed with Minnesota. None of those players have been more productive in their first season with a new team than Staal.

“Everyone in the family knew the talent was there. There were things here that maybe hindered his game,” said younger brother Jordan Staal, who still plays for Carolina. “He wanted so much more for this team, and there was a lot of pressure on him to be a leader. You could tell it was eating him up a little bit.”

With big wings Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter normally playing next to him, Staal has been able to play more freely within Boudreau’s system.

“We’re lucky to have a guy like him,” Coyle said. “You’ve got to be ready when he has the puck. He’ll find you. He’ll put it on your stick when you don’t think it’s going to be there. He’s just been awesome for us.”

Taking the pressure off captain and center Mikko Koivu has been the greatest benefit of Staal’s arrival for the Wild.

“He does a lot of great things on the ice,” Niederreiter said, “and he’s definitely someone we needed.”

The needs went both ways. Staal’s 13th year in the league has brought a lot of satisfaction so far.

“I’m looking forward to hopefully a big second half with this group,” he said.