During a Wednesday night phone conversation, the excitement in Eric Staal’s voice got Wild coach Bruce Boudreau excited. Staal, the free-agent longtime captain of the Carolina Hurricanes, was talking about potentially centering Zach Parise.
“He wanted the opportunity to be the Eric Staal that he was in the past,” Boudreau said after the team signed Staal to a cap-friendly, three-year, $10.5 million contract Friday. “And I told him he would definitely get that chance here.”
In a busy first day of NHL free agency, the Wild brought back power forward Chris Stewart on a two-year, $2.3 million contract; added minor league depth by signing three players, including former San Jose goalie Alex Stalock; and landed Staal, a former 45-goal, 100-point scorer who the Wild hopes has lots of fuel in the tank after a couple of down years.
Boudreau, the former Washington Capitals coach, has seen the All-Star-caliber Staal up close for many years.
“When he was on top of his game, Carolina beat us all the time,” Boudreau said. “He would get three or four points and that meant he was having the puck between the blue lines, carrying the puck, he was a dominant force everywhere.
“Things haven’t gone well for him the last year and a half statistically speaking, but I have a hard time thinking that 31 in today’s day and age with how fit the players are that he’s all of a sudden gotten old. I think he’ll be rejuvenated by the situation here.”
The Wild was in the mix for St. Louis captain David Backes but wasn’t comfortable going five years with a no-trade clause at $30 million for a 32-year-old the way Boston did. The seven-year, $42 million deal Kyle Okposo received from Buffalo was also too pricey.
“A day like today is an opportunity to overpay pretty good players,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “I’d like to think we avoided that for the most part. … We have enough space that depending on how the next few days go, we might find a situation where we have a player that’s very interested in playing for us at a very good cap rate.”
That player could be veteran Matt Cullen, who just won a Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh at age 39. Two of his closest friends are Staal and Zach Parise.
Wild fans hope Staal isn’t a reclamation project similar to former Wild players Dany Heatley and recently bought out Thomas Vanek, who signed with Detroit on Friday. But on a short-term deal at $3.5 million annually, the Wild felt little risk.
Staal, the second overall pick in the 2003 draft who hails from Thunder Bay, Ontario, has scored 325 goals and 781 points in 929 games. He was traded to the Rangers last season after 909 games with Carolina; he ranks second in Hurricanes/Whalers history behind Hall of Famer Ron Francis.
Two years ago he led the Hurricanes with 61 points in 79 games. The season before, he scored 18 goals and 35 points in the 48-game lockout year. But in the past two seasons, he has gone from 54 points to 13 goals and 39 points in 83 games between the Hurricanes and Rangers last season.
It’s the reason he couldn’t duplicate his just-completed seven-year, $57.5 million contract.
“There’s a lot of circumstances that go along with it as to why things went the way they did, but I believe I’m still a very good player,” Staal said. “I’ve scored a lot of goals and a lot of points in the league. I still feel I can be a contributor in a very good team’s top six. I’m going to get an opportunity on a team that’s hungry to win and hungry to be a top team. I’ve got to prove it.”
Acquiring Staal will allow the Wild to move Mikael Granlund to left wing on a line with Mikko Koivu, and move Charlie Coyle from center to the right side of Parise and Staal.
“He’s got great skills, he’s big and a really good center that can carry the puck through the neutral zone well,” Parise said of Staal. “He protects the puck and holds on to it in the offensive zone. I think he’s very excited to play with us.”
Said Staal of Parise, “I feel like our games can mesh well.”
Staal admits the past few years in Raleigh, where he won a Stanley Cup in 2006, wore on him because the Hurricanes were a rebuilding, budget team.
“I look forward to having fun playing the game again,” Staal said. “I’m super excited.”