Moving his career to Minnesota has accomplished exactly what Wild center Eric Staal imagined it would.
He’s rediscovered the scoring prowess that headlined his start in the NHL by racking up 70 goals in two years — with an eye-popping 42 of those coming last season — and he’s starred on a competitive team.
“This is what I had envisioned and what I hoped for,” the veteran of 14 seasons said.
But Staal says his experience could get even better if the Wild finally clears the hurdles in the playoffs to lift a Stanley Cup, a pursuit the 33-year-old remains optimistic about as he enters the final season of a three-year, $10.5 million contract.
“I still feel there’s a lot of great days ahead,” he said.
Based on the impact he’s had so far on the Wild, Staal certainly could help make that forecast a reality.
On the heels of a 28-goal, 65-point debut with the team in 2016-17, he staged a jaw-dropping encore by scoring 42 goals to tie the single-season franchise record. And his 76 points rank third in team history for most in a season.
Overall, Staal had a hand in 30 percent of the Wild’s total offense.
Only three players in the league (Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and Vegas’ William Karlsson) scored more goals than he did last season, and it was his best output since he buried 45 in his second season in the league, 2005-06 with Carolina.
His resurgence not only reaffirmed Staal’s status as one of the NHL’s most reliable producers but also downgraded the 2015-16 campaign to an aberration rather than the start of a spiral. After spending his entire career with the Hurricanes and winning a Cup with Carolina in 2006, he was traded to the Rangers late in that season and finished with just 13 goals before signing as a free agent with the Wild.
Staal credits momentum, confidence and his linemates for helping stoke the offensive outburst, and he’s hoping those ingredients will continue to work.
Some of his most successful games came alongside wingers Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund, and the trio made its preseason debut Wednesday when the Wild took on the Blues in Des Moines before returning to Xcel Energy Center to host the Stars Thursday.
“I don’t see why he shouldn’t be able to have another great year,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Whether he gets 42 goals or not, I think he’s going to be a very big part of our team and one of the bigger goals scorers on our team.”
That’s the type of role Staal anticipates for himself, too.
“I feel like I can play this game for a number of years yet and still be really effective,” he said.
Considering how well the marriage has gone so far, Staal would like to stick with the Wild beyond his current contract. He figures new General Manager Paul Fenton will reach out to his agent once Fenton gets a better feel for the team — which is Fenton’s thinking.
“Hopefully we’re on the same page, but we’ll kind of see when that happens,” said Staal, who has dressed for every regular-season and playoff game since joining the Wild. “Until then, I think my focus is just helping this group and enjoying playing and doing what I can to be a good contributor for this group.”
Those boxes were checked by Staal last season when he skated like the team’s MVP. But it was the sting of another early playoff exit — this time to the Jets in five games — that resonated with him once the summer began.
“The finish is what you remember, and that was disappointing,” he said. “It was tough. Obviously, we played a very good team and it was a challenging series — especially missing Ryan [Suter because of injury]. But that was disappointing. You wanted to grab more of a hold of that to achieve more.”
Another slip-up, however, hasn’t eroded Staal’s confidence in the Wild.
“I have belief in this group,” he said. “I think we’re a good team. We’re going to be a good team. We’ll be really competitive. I think we got a lot of guys who are eager to perform and do more. So [I’m] just trying to do my part along with everybody else.”
Although playing for the Wild has already fulfilled Staal’s hopes, he feels there’s still more he can do.
“I would love to win here, and it’s just such a great hockey place,” he said. “It would be so unbelievable.”