After four consecutive years of finishing seventh or eighth in the Western Conference, the Wild is familiar with eking into the playoffs.
In a division with the Chicago Blackhawks, who have won three Stanley Cups in seven years, or a powerhouse regular-season team such as St. Louis, a wild-card spot basically becomes the expectation.
But during the Wild’s 11-game winning streak, Eric Staal has talked consistently about catching and overtaking the Blackhawks for the Central Division lead. And now the Wild is one point behind Chicago despite playing three fewer games.
Staal says setting the bar high starts with first-year coach Bruce Boudreau, who earned division titles in eight of nine seasons with Washington and Anaheim.
“He’s won wherever he’s been, and he’s making sure he’s pushing us to be at our best every night,” Staal said.
But teammates also say the team’s sudden aim of winning a second division championship in franchise history has as much to do with Staal helping establish a new expectation.
“You can tell he’s been a captain, and you can tell that he’s won,” Zach Parise said of the Stanley Cup champion with Carolina in 2006 and Olympic gold medalist with Canada in 2010.
If you had to chisel the consummate pro, goalie Devan Dubnyk says, “you’d mold it after” Staal.
“Winning the division is an important goal for us this year, and to have a guy like that continually saying it in the room during the streak and after wins and reiterating things we’re doing well is helping push us forward,” Dubnyk said. “It’s big for everybody in the room — older guys and young guys — to hear from somebody that’s been there, done that, telling us those things.”
It helps that Staal, the second overall pick in the 2003 draft, is enjoying a renaissance season at the age of 32.
Staal, 13th among active NHLers with 810 points in 963 games, ranks second on the Wild behind Charlie Coyle with 11 goals in 34 games, two shy of his total in 83 games last season with the Hurricanes and the Rangers. He is tied with Coyle for the team points lead with 29. He’s riding an eight-game point streak, his longest since an 11-game string in 2013, and he is tied for third in the NHL in game-winning goals with five.
General Manager Chuck Fletcher loves the refreshing attitude.
“Bruce and Eric, their mind-set is great: Don’t look behind, keep looking ahead,” Fletcher said. “Why can’t we win our division? Obviously it’s a tough league, but they’re setting the bar high, and it’s important for this group. There’s a lot of good teams, but we have a good team.”
Admittedly old school, Staal, who wouldn’t be caught dead on social media and who after games looks as if he has gone through battle, conducts himself like a player from yesteryear. That’s because he learned from veterans such as Ron Francis, Rod Brind’Amour, Glen Wesley and Bret Hedican in Raleigh.
Staal broke into the NHL as an 18-year-old, got his feet wet during a 31-point rookie year and then spent his second pro season in the minors because of the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season.
He scored 77 points in 71 games for Lowell of the AHL before arriving back in the NHL in 2005.
“When you’re 18 and playing with men that are 30, sometimes it could be a daunting task,” said Nashville Predators coach Peter Laviolette, Staal’s coach at the time with Carolina. “But that year in the American League was big for him.
“He had a real good year, gained confidence, and now he comes up two years after his draft year, scores 100 points and wins a Cup. I counted on Eric a lot as a young player at 20, 21 years old.
“He was a player that was ready to attack and make things happen. He was used in all situations and really carried our team through the year and carried us in the playoffs.”
Not only did Staal finish seventh in regular-season scoring and eighth with 45 goals, he led all NHL players with 28 points in the 2006 postseason.
“He was and is just a talented player, very coachable and just a really good kid,” Laviolette said. “I remember a lot of good conversations with him on the plane. Outside of hockey, this is a great person.”
Boudreau says Staal is the same player he always feared during Hurricanes-Capitals matchups, but he never realized what a great person and leader he was. It’s the attitude he arrives with to the rink.
Dubnyk echoed that sentiment.
“He takes care of himself every day, he’s here to play every night, he’s been producing offensively, but he’s the kind of guy that even if he’s not getting points, you know he’s going to contribute to the game,” Dubnyk said. “He’s been a champion in a lot of different levels, so he knows what that takes.”
As long as he stays healthy, Staal will hit 1,000 games this season. In 13 years, he has missed only 22 games, playing every game in seven seasons.
“I don’t like to miss games,” Staal said. “I love being out there. I love playing. I just don’t like being out of the lineup. There’s probably a few nights where I should have taken myself out of the lineup, and I didn’t.
“There’s a sense of pride to be able to play that many games in a league like this in how competitive it is and how hard it is day in and day out to be out there.”
Staal signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract July 1, and Boudreau says his presence gives the Wild two big, strong centermen, including Mikko Koivu, who can play against any line. After seeing Staal twice in 13 days, Laviolette said it’s obvious Staal is “moving really well and the puck’s on his stick,” which is a sign he’s back to feeling confident.
“He seems to be right back to it right now,” Laviolette said.
Off the ice, Minnesota has so far been everything Staal had hoped. His wife and three boys love living in the western suburbs, and two of his kids are playing hockey, including his oldest playing on a team with Ryan Suter’s oldest.
“When he’s away from here, he’s a family guy,” Suter said. “A player of his stature, for us to be able to get, is pretty impressive. He still has a lot left in the tank.”
As a free agent, Staal talked to a lot of teams, but he took a leap of faith with the Wild because he felt the Wild could win now and he trusted his conversations with Boudreau. The veteran coach promised he’d be put in a position to succeed as a top-two center with two solid wingers on his sides nightly.
“I knew going into this summer I was going to [try] my hardest to find the right opportunity and the right fit, regardless of how much someone was going to pay me,” Staal said. “I was going to find the right situation personally to be successful and I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity in Minnesota and a great group. I’m enjoying it, it’s been fun.
“You’re put in positions to be successful, and you can gain confidence as you go. It’s fun to be back on the horse the way I expect myself to be. Hopefully it continues. This is what I was hoping for, on and off the ice. I didn’t envision an [11-game] winning streak at Christmastime, but it’s been a good transition.”
To say the least.