Eric Staal was a trade deadline rental two years ago, a one-time star with the Carolina Hurricanes whose career appeared to be in decline at age 31.
It turns out all he needed was a little stability.
Staal revitalized his career with Minnesota after signing as a free agent in the summer of 2016, and his play since Feb. 1 lifted the Wild from out of the playoffs to third in the Central Division.
“It’s a great organization, and it was a good fit for me coming in last year,” Staal said following the Wild’s practice Thursday at T-Mobile Arena. “I’m more comfortable this season as it’s gone on. We’re hoping to do some good things here to finish the season and put ourselves in a good spot to have a special playoff.”
Staal led the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup in 2006 in his second year in the league and posted seven straight 70-point seasons from 2006 to 2012.
He signed a seven-year, $57.75 million extension starting in the 2009-10 season, but saw his offensive production dip by the end of the deal.
Staal had 10 goals and 33 points in 63 games when Carolina traded him to the New York Rangers in 2016 for a prospect and two second-round picks.
“It’s hard to put your finger on one thing between how it was going the last couple years in Carolina within their organization and being a captain, being the highest paid player there, there’s a lot of added things that go along with that,” Staal said.
“It got pretty difficult towards the end, and then you get a chance to become a free agent like I was two summers ago and it’s a refresh button and a new opportunity to find a fit with Minnesota, which was already a playoff team, an established team, a lot of great players already.”
Staal grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario, about a six-hour drive from Minneapolis, and signed a bargain three-year, $10.5 million deal with the Wild.
He posted 65 points in 82 games last season with the Wild, and has thrust himself into the conversation for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player this season.
Staal was fifth in the NHL in goals (37) entering Saturday’s game at Arizona and was the NHL’s First Star of the Month for February.
Staal has 17 goals in his past 21 games, and the 6-foot-4-inch center would be a difficult matchup for the Golden Knights should they meet in the playoffs.
In Minnesota’s three victories over the Knights, Staal had four goals and two assists.
“I’ve found over my time playing in this league is if you have great team success, that kind of stuff follows suit, whether it be contracts or just being in the league,” Staal said. “You find yourself on a successful team, you’re going to have good things happen to you. For me, it’s just about trying to contribute with this group, try to win games.”
Bigger is better?
The topic of playoff expansion came up again last week, as The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported the majority of NHL general managers favor increasing the number of teams that make the postseason.
More teams in the playoffs equals more job security, so no surprise there.
But with the league’s GMs set to meet in Boca Raton, Florida, commissioner Gary Bettman dismissed the idea of adding teams to the postseason. Under the current format, 16 of the 31 teams qualify for the playoffs.
“Not something we’re (or will be) considering,” Bettman said via email to The Athletic. “Makes no sense — dilutes and extends the length of the season. Reduces, if not eliminates, exciting regular season races. Potentially punishes the seventh and eighth finishers. And finally, what we have has been terrific. Why fix it if it’s not broken!”
Also expected to be on the agenda at the GM meetings is video review for goaltender interference and offside.
Three stars of the week
1. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg — The 19-year-old wing had an assist in Thursday’s 6-2 win over Chicago to extend his points streak to 14 games and set the NHL record for points in consecutive games by a teenager.
2. James van Riemsdyk, Toronto — The powerful left wing had six points (five goals, one assist) in two games for the Maple Leafs, including a hat trick in a 6-5 victory over Dallas on Wednesday.
3. Tyson Barrie, Colorado — The defenseman had three assists in three games and extended his personal point streak to a career-high nine games (four goals, eight assists).