What seems like Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher’s never-ending quest to find offensive players landed at the feet of Eric Staal during the first day of NHL free agency Friday.
The big question: After having his lowest point total since his rookie year in 2003-04, can Staal rekindle his high-scoring ways pivoting a potential line to start the season with Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle?
For whatever reason, Minnesota has been a place proven scorers come to wilt.
The list of offensive-minded acquisitions during Fletcher’s reign since 2009 is long — in order, Martin Havlat, Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Parise, Jason Pominville, Matt Moulson, Thomas Vanek, Chris Stewart (after Friday, twice).
After most acquisitions, Fletcher lauded their “shooting mentality” ways.
Yet, whether it’s the Wild’s prior systems, the players fading or if there’s something funky in the St. Paul frozen water on the Xcel Energy Center floor, the Wild never seems to be able to find a player capable of consistently lighting the lamp.
In Fletcher’s seven seasons as GM (one was shortened by a lockout), only two players have hit 30 goals (Pominville and Parise) and one has had more than 62 points (71 by Mikko Koivu, way back in 2009-10).
Take Parise: In his three full seasons before coming to the Wild, he scored 69, 82 and 94 points, and that was with allegedly defensive-minded New Jersey. In his three non-lockout seasons with the Wild, Parise had 56, 62 and 53 points.
In fact, in its 15-season history, the Wild has had only four 30-goal scorers and three players ever top 70 points.
Can Staal or Bruce Boudreau’s attacking, on-your-toes system help change that? Can one of the Wild’s younger core — Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker, Erik Haula — take the next step?
Fletcher hopes it’s all of the above, particularly the latter.
“Our younger guys, they’re not that young anymore, but now they’ve had a lot of experiences,” Fletcher said, admitting, “Guys like Charlie and Granlund, I challenged at the end of the year, ‘You guys have to step up, and it’s time for you guys to grab some leadership here, and start to assert yourself, too, within the room, and within the group.’
“Hopefully last year will make us stronger this year, and certainly we’re deeper, bigger and, I believe, more skilled than we were last year.”
Fletcher said free agency, which he joked is the biggest misnomer in sports because there’s nothing free about it, was not the place to cure all the Wild’s ills.
He likes the economical $3.5 million per year Staal signing because he has a chance, at only 31 years old, to reboot his career without the Wild having to, at least now, sacrifice its young defensemen in a trade for a center.
But Fletcher said it’s up to the Wild to develop scorers from within.
“You look at our last three drafts, with guys like [Alex] Tuch and [Joel] Eriksson Ek and [Luke] Kunin, all three of them can score,” he said. “They can all shoot the puck. Two of them can play center, all three of them compete, and that’s still where you have to find your skill.
“We’re very blessed to have those types of kids coming. … That’s hopefully where that next wave of top-end scoring is going to come from.”
Back in the day, Staal was an outstanding scorer. In 909 games with Carolina, he ranks second in Hurricanes/Whalers history behind Hall of Famer Ron Francis with 322 goals, 453 assists, 775 points, 105 power-play goals and 47 game-winning goals. He ranks first with 16 shorthanded goals and 3,033 shots.
Other than his rookie year, Staal has eclipsed 20 goals in every non-lockout-shortened year except last season. That includes five times topping 30 goals, including 40 goals twice.
But he hasn’t hit the 30-goal mark since 2010-11. Known as a shooter, his 2.4 shots per game last year was his lowest since 2003-04. The good news is he seems to drive possession. He had better possession numbers than any Wild skater last season.
“Let’s be honest, when you’re 32 years old you’re not the same player as when you’re 25, 26,” Fletcher said. “But we think this is a good situation with Eric, and obviously, he felt the same way. We have some quality players he can play with. We certainly have an important role he can fill.
“He’s a quality centerman, has skill, good on faceoffs, can play 200 feet and along with Mikko and Haula, we now have three guys through the middle of the ice who can defend well and also contribute offensively.”
And, Fletcher may not be done. As prices come down, he indicated he may be in the market for one or two more forwards. Players like Matt Cullen, who could help the Wild’s 27th-ranked penalty kill of last season; Brandon Pirri, who two seasons ago scored 22 goals in 49 games for Florida; and Shane Doan, a Coyotes lifer, are still out there. Same for unsigned Wild checkers Ryan Carter and Chris Porter.
Plus, there are always trades.
“I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to more managers more often than I have the past few weeks,” Fletcher said.