VANCOUVER – It is difficult to remember, but there was a dominant version of Eric Staal before this one.
Staal wasn’t just in the 2010 Olympics here. He was part of the greatest Team Canada in hockey history, the first-line winger alongside Sidney Crosby and Jarome Iginla, who combined on the most famous Canadian goal since 1972.
Staal watched Crosby’s gold-medal-winning overtime goal against Team USA from the bench at Rogers Arena.
“Four on four,” he explains, somewhat sheepishly. “You have to ask (coach) Mike Babcock about that.”
Four years earlier, Staal was only 21 when he was a reserve on Canada’s 2006 Olympic team. That was the season in the National Hockey League when the centre from Thunder Bay, Ont., was fourth in Hart Trophy balloting.
His 45 goals and 100 points for the Carolina Hurricanes allowed Staal to finish ahead of rookies Crosby and Alex Ovechkin on the ballot. Joe Thornton won the MVP award that year, but Staal didn’t mind because he won the Stanley Cup. Not bad for a second-year player.
Those years, 2006 through 2010, are important when discussing Staal because they framed his most dominant period as a player. With the exception of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, his offensive production eroded fairly steadily following the Vancouver Olympics.
After Carolina traded him to the New York Rangers at the deadline two years ago, Staal managed only three goals and six points in 20 games in Manhattan, then went 0-for in a five-game first-round playoff loss.
Staal was just 31 years old, but a lot of people figured he was done as an impact player in the NHL.
The Wild thought otherwise.
“I couldn’t see that anyone could lose it that quick,” Minnesota coach Bruce Boudreau says. “When I was in Washington, he was great. In two years, they say he’s lost it, and he’s only 31? I didn’t believe it. He’s proved everybody wrong.
“I don’t think the salary even comes into view. I think he wanted a chance to prove to people that he was a really good player. . . (to) people who thought that he wasn’t. And he proved it. I can’t measure his value in money.”
Others try to. Staal is one of the great values in the NHL.
Heading into Friday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks, he had 36 goals and 67 points in 67 games. He hasn’t been a point-per-game player since 2013, and if you skip that 48-game season he hasn’t scored this prolifically since 2010.
Staal’s 36 goals – with 15 games remaining in the regular season – are already his most since 2008-09. Two years ago, in 83 games for Carolina and New York, he scored 13.
At age 33, he has become an elite scorer again at about half the price of one. Staal is just past the mid-point of a three-year contract worth $3.5 million annually. Which means on July 1, 2019, when he will be 34, Staal could be one of the top unrestricted free agents on the market.
“I think with the salary cap, you can skew anything the way you want with money and numbers,” he says. “Just because you’re making way more money, it doesn’t mean you’re a worse player (based on points-per-dollar). That’s how people view it because of the cap and how it works.
“Where I was at that point in my career, I just wanted to be the player I felt like I knew I could be and get back to. My focus was helping our team win and playing the way I felt like I knew I could. It’s been that and more since joining the Wild, and hopefully I’ve got many more years left.”
Staal chose to save his career with the Wild because it was the nearest thing he had to a home team in Thunder Bay.
“A six-hour drive down Highway 61,” he says. “It’s easy for my wife’s family to come down, and not far from where I grew up playing.”
Staal admits he experienced “doubts” during his trade season two years ago, but always believed he would score again with the right team and coach.
“This was a great team already, a playoff team consistently every year,” he says. “We just wanted to find the right fit for me to play centre and play with some great players on the wing. We have that here.
“Bruce, obviously, has been a factor. He’s put me in positions to be successful and kind of bring back things in my game that make me good. It’s been a great experience from the moment I signed with the Wild. I’m just enjoying playing every day and doing what I can to help us win.”
Coming to Vancouver, the Wild were 20-7-4 since Christmas. Staal had 21 goals in those 31 games and is headed back to the playoffs.
He knew he could still play, but never thought he would score like this again.
“With the way the game is played now and how tough it is to score, probably not,” he says. “But this has been a fun year. We’ve got a good team and I’ve been fortunate to be on the right end of a lot of great plays by some of these guys. And when it’s rolling your way, you want to keep it and stay in that zone as long as you can.”
It’s like he never left.