Eric Staal and Zach Parise.
Eric Staal endured a horrible 2015-16 season but never doubted his ability to become a front-line NHL center again. The Wild gave him a chance. He's flourished.
The NHL’s All-Star Game roster selection rules typically prioritize fun over merit, and that’s a good thing. John Scott gave us one of the most memorable and amazing all-star weekends in history last year. Though the NHL introduced the ‘John Scott rule’ this season, disqualifying players from being named captains if they’re injured or sent to the AHL, the event still honors a few other fun-first traditions.
One is ensuring every NHL team has a representative. That’s why, when the league unveiled the 2017 All-Star Game rosters Tuesday, the lists were peppered with a few pedestrian performers. Doing so reflects the game's inclusive spirit, but it can be cruel to a few deserving players who get snubbed. No disrespect to the likes of Frans Nielsen, Mike Smith, Vincent Trocheck, Kyle Okposo and Nathan MacKinnon, but…they aren’t playing at an All-Star Game level this season. The Central Division in particular seems out of whack, with the Winnipeg Jets’ Mark Scheifele and the Chicago Blackhawks’ Artemi Panarin failing to make the team. MacKinnon, with 10 goals and 27 points in 39 games, can’t hold a candle to their numbers.
Another Central snub inciting less fan outrage on social media in the hours after the announcement: Mr. Eric Staal. The Minnesota Wild’s new No. 1 center quietly has 13 goals and 35 points in 39 games, which extrapolates to 27 goals and 74 points over an 82-game schedule. Staal has also performed steadily in the possession game, with a 5-on-5 Corsi 4.4 percent higher than his team’s average. He's humming along at an all-star level, even if the selection rules block him from that official designation. And that’s quite the accomplishment for Staal, 32, given how low his stock plummeted last season.
It’s easy to see why 2015-16 was a nightmare for Staal. It was his 12th season as the Hurricanes’ marquee center. He racked up 100 points and won the Stanley Cup with them in 2005-06. By season’s end he’d have 322 goals and 775 points in 909 games with them, trailing only Ron Francis for the Hartford/Carolina franchise’s all-time lead in goals, assists and points. But Staal was a pending unrestricted free agent, and Francis, now the team’s GM, was only a couple seasons into a true rebuild. Staal knew he made no sense for the team’s long-term vision. He saw a breakup coming. He was pretty sure he had to move on. It was tough to play through those feelings on a fledgling team.
“That can weigh on you, but at the same time you’re trying to play as hard as you can for the team to make a push, and we were hanging around for a while, fighting hard,” he said. “When you do know that trade deadline’s coming and you’re going to be traded, there’s just a lot to deal with. It’s difficult. Then with on-ice play, with them knowing I was probably moving on, there was situational play where different guys were in different spots, and I was probably in different spots than what I’ve been most successful or comfortable with.”
Staal is diplomatically referring to line juggling. The Canes were searching for their team identity and tried youngsters Elias Lindholm and Victor Rask with Staal, as well as veteran Kris Versteeg. The transition was awkward for Staal, and he labored through easily his worst offensive season since his rookie year of 2003-04, with just 10 goals and 33 points in 63 games. Then came the deadline-day trade to the New York Rangers, and things got worse from there. Including the playoffs, Staal had just three goals and six points in 25 games, spent primarily on the Rangers’ third line. His market value as a UFA was damaged, his ability to produce as a top-flight NHL center called into question. Staal, however, didn’t suffer any crisis of confidence during that trying year. Not even close.
“The year was not successful, and the numbers didn’t look good, but in my mind and in my head and my heart, I thought, ‘I know I still can play,’ ” he said. “It wasn’t like every time I was on the ice, nothing was happening and I wasn’t creating chances or I was just an ineffective player. I wasn’t, and I knew I wasn’t. Given the right situation and opportunity, I felt like I could contribute and get back to some of the numbers that I was more accustomed to over the years.”
Someone else shared that sentiment: newly minted Minnesota Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau. He saw plenty of offense left in Staal’s stick and played a crucial role in summer recruitment. Staal was weighing multiple offers, but Boudreau’s pitch won him over. Staal signed for three years and $10.5 million.
“I’ve been given an opportunity to play in a role I’m most comfortable in,” Staal said. “It’s a new staff, I had great candid conversations with Bruce over the summer, and he told me he’s going to give me every opportunity to play the way he knew and I felt like I could play.”
Boudreau delivered on that promise, parking Staal on the team’s top line. He’s seen variations between Nino Niederreiter and Zach Parise on the left side but has played almost the entire year with Charlie Coyle on his right. Coyle has enjoyed the best season of his young career so far, and Staal has rejoined the ranks of high-end offensive pivots. If he maintains his current pace, he’ll finish 2016-17 with his best numbers across the board since 2012-13.
So it’s been a great “prove it” season for Staal. Not that any revenge narrative applies to Carolina, of course. The separation was amicable. They’d merely outgrown their usefulness to each other. The Canes, years away from Cup contention, needed to get younger and cheaper. Staal, exiting his prime, wanted to pursue playoff success with an established club. He describes his Wild teammates as “a group of players looking to achieve something more,” and he thinks of himself the same way.
All-Star Game participant? Not unless someone pulls out with a late injury, and even then, Panarin likely gets the first look. But Staal’s season is a great success regardless – and a reminder for us to ponder a player’s situation before assuming his best years are gone.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin