Eric Staal chuckled when asked to look back seven months at his employment future.
“I wouldn’t say I had a lot of options,” smiled the 32-year-old who was one of the more interesting unrestricted free agents up for grabs July 1.
“There definitely weren’t 29 teams lining up to sign me. But there were a few. I wanted to be in a situation where I was going to a good team already and a team where I could play an important role at my natural position, at centre. There were things I was looking for and teams looking for the same. So I had some options with good teams. But Minnesota was number one on my radar, to be honest. I’m glad it worked out.”
So is the State of Minnesota, where hockey reigns supreme and the Wild now comfortably rule the West.
Unquestionably the NHL’s biggest surprise of the season, the Wild’s ride to the top has plenty to do with the three-year, $10.5-million contract Staal agreed to.
Fact is, Staal is the biggest reason for the turnaround.
“I never thought we’d be sitting where we are right now but I knew we were a playoff team and there were a lot of pieces I could probably fit into and make better,” said Staal, whose 34-12-5 club plays Winnipeg Tuesday with a four-point lead over Chicago and three games in hand.
“I knew it would be good. I think it has enabled a lot of pieces to move to different spots and it has created a good balance.”
Coach Bruce Boudreau, who had been hired two months earlier, immediately penciled Staal in as his top line centre. The veteran coach, who is making just a half-million bucks less than Staal is, didn’t worry about whispers Staal had lost a step over his 13 years in Carolina where his production had decreased steadily the last three years.
He was well aware of what Staal was capable of doing with his 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame and wanted it to be forefront in the Wild attack.
“Quite frankly, I’ve been used to having two centres that are big and I know it works out really well for both of them,” said Boudreau, who relied on Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler to carry the load in Anaheim.
“He’s been a horse. Especially, it allows Mikko (Koivu) not to be the number one guy everybody’s going after every game.”
That has been key.
Koivu has anchored a line with Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker, combining for 47 goals and a league-best plus-93 rating. An incredible trio chiefly responsible for the fact the defensively sound Wild have scored 53 more goals than they’ve allowed.
Granlund, who was moved to the wing with Staal’s arrival, leads the team with 48 points, while Zucker and Koivu are tied with Staal’s team-leading 16 goals. Granlund’s breakout is largely attributed to his move to the wing, making him the NHL’s second star last week after extending his point streak to a league-high 12 games.
The other significant shuffle Staal’s arrival opened the door for was for Charlie Coyle to move to the wing where he’s been impressive, totalling 13 goals alongside Nino Niederreiter (15 goals) and Staal.
The balance in the Wild’s lines is now among the league’s best as former 45-goal scorer Zach Parise is generally a third-liner, currently lined up with Erik Haula and veteran Jason Pominville. Chris Stewart has 11 goals on the fourth line.
“He gave us depth at centre and in the NHL that’s so important,” said Parise, who pointed out Staal did well to demand accountability in the room, which is not an easy task for anyone on a new team.
“You see it year after year from teams that do well in the playoffs, they’ve got that depth at centre. He’s come in and played a lot of minutes on power play, penalty kill, five-on-five and he’s done really well for us. You look at the success he’s had in the NHL, winning a Cup and winning gold medals so I don’t think a guy like that needs a letter. A guy like that comes in and right away has the respect of the room. You can tell he’s been a captain somewhere else.”
It has been more than 10 years since Staal hoisted the Stanley Cup in Carolina where subsequent rebuilds took a huge toll on the man chosen second overall in the 2003 draft.
“It was a struggle the last couple years,” admitted Staal. “You miss the playoffs for however many years in a row it was for me (seven), being the captain and the highest-paid player, there are a lot of things that weigh on you. That’s human nature. My contract was ending last year and obviously the trade (to the New York Rangers). The summer was wide open with what was going to happen and fortunately I landed in a pretty good spot.”
Not before everyone else in the league had a shot at him.
Unable to make his mark with the Rangers where he had three goals and three assists in 25 games – including being blanked in all five playoff contests – many GMs likely figured he’d lost a step and maybe even some of the desire that made him one of the few to join the Triple Gold club as a Cup winner, world champ (2007) and Olympic champ (2010).
“I skate with everyone I skate with and I’m just as fast, so I knew I didn’t lose a step,” insisted Staal, a former 100-point man who is six years removed from his last of five 30-goal campaigns.
“There are just lots of things that weigh on you in the situation I was in and it becomes difficult. But coming here was an opportunity to have a fresh start in a great hockey market and it has worked out the way I envisioned.”
Even better than his teammates thought possible. After all, his 42 points in Wild green already surpass his totals in 83 outings last year.
“I’m not surprised with what he has brought but I think perhaps he’s brought more than what we ever could have asked for,” said Minnesota goaltender Devan Dubnyk, whose Vezina-like season is another big reason for the Wild’s surge.
“We were excited to have him but I think his leadership is obvious. He’s won. He’s a professional. The younger guys see how he is and that’s just another key guy to have around like that.
“I think he takes a lot of pressure off the older guys in that same age group like Mikko, Zach and Suits (Ryan Suter). The added depth he gives us is crazy when you have a guy that is your leading scorer but is also a guy you put out at the end of the game and controls the puck and doesn’t turn it over. He’s a guy you want on the ice the entire game, and that’s tough to find.”