The start of the season wasn’t just miserable for the Wild.
It was also a struggle for Eric Staal.
A perennial scorer throughout his 16 years in the NHL, the veteran center didn’t register his first goal until Game 9 — the longest drought to begin a season in his career.
But as Staal picked up his production, the Wild was also resurrected.
Now, the 35-year-old is the team’s top goal scorer and points leader while the Wild is entrenched in the Western Conference playoff race after being previously relegated to the basement. And after emerging as one of the faces of that turnaround, Staal will represent the Wild at the All-Star Game in January in St. Louis.
“I was just focused on helping our team get back to where we wanted to be and needed to be and my game at the level I expected it to be,” Staal said. “That was my primary focus over the last couple months. We’ve climbed ourselves back into the fight. Still have a way to go, but it’s nice to be recognized for sure.”
This is Staal’s second appearance on behalf of the Wild in three years and sixth invitation overall; he also participated in 2011, 2009, 2008 and 2007. Staal was named MVP in 2008 and served as a captain in 2011.
He got word Friday when the team was in Colorado to take on the Avalanche and was caught off guard when he received a text message from General Manager Bill Guerin asking Staal to call him.
“I just didn’t know what he was calling about,” Staal said. “It was game day, and I was getting my coffee, getting ready to go to the game.”
Staal went on to relay the news to his family, and sharing the experience with his three sons is what made the trip to Tampa two seasons ago so enjoyable.
“They still talk about it now,” Staal said. “Some of the pictures and autographs they got, just hanging around the locker room, seeing guys they watch on NHL Network regularly just in a setting like that is pretty fun. It’s going to be great. They’re all excited about it. They keep asking when it is and how many more days, how many more sleeps.
“I’m excited obviously for the youngest [Finley]. He’s 5 now, so he’ll get it a little bit more. It’ll be great.”
Already this has been a memorable season for Staal, who signed a two-year, $6.5 million extension in February.
After being the 113th player to skate in 1,200 games on Nov.29, he became just the 89th to record 1,000 points Dec. 15 in Chicago.
By then, Staal had gotten himself on pace to eclipse 30 goals — after he slipped to 22 last season on the heels of a 42-goal season in 2017-18.
Through 40 games, Staal leads the Wild in goals (15) and points (32). Over his past nine games, Staal has 11 points — including seven goals — and he’s earned at least one point in 21 of the past 33. That run includes a season-high six-game point streak, a season-high three-game goal streak and seven multipoint efforts. His four game-winning goals are also a team-high.
“You’ve got to keep playing and just be committed to doing it right day in, day out,” Staal said about overcoming his early-season slump. “I knew that if I stayed within the game plan that we’d be rewarded and confidence would grow and we’d get to where we are now. But like I said, we have a long way to go [to] keep improving.”
Like the last time Staal went to the All-Star Game, the festivities Jan.24-25 will include a 3-on-3, three-team tournament among the four divisions and a skills competition.
Fans previously selected the captains of the divisions, and they will also be tasked with filling out the rosters by voting in one more player to each division from a group of 31 possibilities. Defenseman Ryan Suter is the Wild’s candidate.
Even if he’s the only one from the Wild to go to the All-Star Game, Staal views the recognition as emblematic of the entire team — a lineup that’s rallied from a slow beginning to contend for a playoff spot, progress that Staal has certainly helped ignite.
“This is the best league in the world and if you can get named to a game like that, it’s special and it’s an honor for sure,” Staal said. “I’m obviously thankful for the guys that you’re playing alongside nightly. It’s just a representation of our guys and this group. It’ll be fun.”