Once regarded as one of the league’s brightest up-and-coming stars and the face of the Carolina Hurricanes franchise, Eric Staal had, perhaps unfairly, become widely viewed as a shell of his former self. This opinion was mostly fabricated based on his offensive production that was in steady and steep decline.
Despite the dip in his recent scoring numbers, the second-overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft was determined to get his career back on track and prove to his doubters that he could still keep up with the world’s best hockey players.
A Rough Few Years
At the ripe age of 24, Staal signed a massive seven-year contract extension with the Hurricanes worth $57.75 million. A great deal of additional attention and elevated pressure to deliver on the scoresheet came along with the territory of carrying one of the league’s highest cap hits at $8.25 million.
The one-time dominant forward was a key contributor when the Hurricanes franchise won its first Stanley Cup in 2006. Then, partway through the first year of his new deal, Staal was named Carolina’s new captain and was expected to lead his team to a second one. Expectations did not meet reality. Not only did the team fail to win a second Cup under Staal’s guidance but they failed to even qualify for the playoffs during the entirety of his seven-year contract.
If the lack of team success wasn’t bad enough, the Ontario-native saw his individual success take a big hit as well. The 6-foot-4 centre scored at close to a point per game rate through the first four years of his contract but his offensive output dropped to 0.64 points per game over the course of the final three years. More concerning, was the fact that Staal’s point totals dipped consistently from year to year over the span of those last three seasons—not a good pattern for a player heading towards unrestricted free agency.
The slumping forward was dealt to the New York Rangers prior to the 2016 trade deadline but struggled to adapt to his new surroundings. Without finding a defined role in the Rangers’ lineup, Staal posted only six points in 20 regular season games before going pointless in five playoff games. New York was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins and Staal was left with an uncertain future.
A New Lease on Life
On July 1, without much fanfare from the hockey world, the oldest of the Staal brothers signed on the dotted line to become a member of the Minnesota Wild for three years. The move was more of an afterthought next to the day’s big money signings of Milan Lucic, Kyle Okposo and Loui Eriksson but fast-forward four months later and the wily veteran is now one of the leaders and most consistent performers on the Wild roster.
A fresh start without the burden of a huge contract weighing him down appears to be just what the doctor ordered for Staal as he has looked right at home in the North Star State. It also helps that the identical contracts handed out to Ryan Suter and Zach Parise in July 2012 will easily overshadow any other cap hit in Minnesota for the foreseeable future.
Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau has been nothing but complimentary of the club’s new addition which has likely been a key factor in restoring the big centreman’s confidence levels on the ice. Boudreau praised the former 100-point scorer’s ability to play the game the right way and has put him in a position to succeed since his very first day on the Wild roster.
Staal has centred the team’s top line since opening night and has seen plenty of time with Minnesota’s reigning scoring leader Parise on his left and breakout candidate Charlie Coyle on his right. His addition to the club has also proven beneficial to team captain Mikko Koivu who is now comfortably settled into a second line shutdown role where his game is best suited.
Still Has What It Takes
The now 32-year-old Staal has proven that he still has what it takes compete and excel in the NHL. He currently leads all Minnesota forwards in scoring and has shown no signs of slowing down. Staal is playing smart hockey, is consistently strong on the puck, and is clearly playing with a rediscovered level of confidence. A natural leader on the ice, Staal is sporting an ‘A’ on his jersey in the absence of injured assistant captain Parise and his passion for the game is shining through to his teammates.
If there was any concern in the Gopher State regarding the veteran forward’s longevity, those concerns can now be put to rest. Staal has hit the ground running in Minnesota, fully rejuvenated, and is a bargain with a $3.5 million cap hit. The Wild and Staal may just be the perfect match.
Mark Bowie covers the Edmonton Oilers and the QMJHL for THW.