Wednesday, 29 March 2017


Veteran Eric Staal is savoring his career's second act 

with the Minnesota Wild

"I knew that I could still play at a high level and be effective in the right situation," said Eric Staal of his decision to sign with Minnesota after a frustrating 2015-16 season with Carolina and the New York Rangers.

It's not a particularly good joke, and perhaps at one point, even as recently as last summer, it might have seemed cruel or just plain stupid.
But here we are, sitting in a coffee shop near the Minnesota Wild's hotel in D.C. after a recent mid-March blizzard has blanketed the Northeast. Staal has arrived early, wearing his toque and winter coat, and fixed himself a small coffee.
I ask him if he visited the White House the previous day.
No, Staal replies, but he notes that he and a group of teammates, led by Ryan Suter, did go to the Capitol, where they got a behind-the-scenes look at the heart of government in Staal's adopted country.
Staal, a native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, has actually been to the White House before, along with his Carolina Hurricanes teammates, after they won the franchise's only Stanley Cup, in 2006 -- and brought the Cup home to Canada.
"So, your White House visit, was that during the Lincoln administration?" I ask.
Instead of punching me in the nose or simply getting up and leaving -- which would have been well within his rights -- Staal, now 32, laughs. A long, hearty guffaw.
Ha. Ha. Ha. Good one. Wow, was it that long ago?
"Honestly, it doesn't feel like that long ago, but then it does," Staal said. "It's like a combination of both. It's crazy that I'm coming up on 1,000 games. I feel like I literally didn't start that long ago. Time moves."
Time factors into much of our conversation on this wintry morning -- specifically, the passage of it -- what might be accomplished in whatever time remains in the veteran's career, and the stark difference between Staal's situation now and where he was a year ago.
Last spring, on the eve of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Staal was trying to settle into his new surroundings with the New York Rangers. He had been traded by Carolina, the team that selected him second overall in the 2003 draft, to the Rangers -- where he joined his brother Marc Staal for what would be a very short playoff run.
The Rangers were mauled by the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins in a five-game series that seemed somehow even shorter than that.

 Staal didn't score in the Rangers' first-round playoff series loss to
 the Penguins last spring -- and had only 13 goals all season, his
lowest total since he was a rookie with the Hurricanes in 2003-04
It was Staal's first playoff appearance since 2009. You wait all that time to get back to the dance, and then it's over in five games, and the future, once so sparkly and enticing, somehow didn't seem so promising anymore.
"I was disappointed," Staal said. "I mean, my confidence wasn't as high as it should be or normally would be, with how the whole year played out, how it finished in New York, how the playoffs went, with no points and whatever I was in plus/minus."
It wasn't pretty. Stall finished with 13 goals in 83 games played between the Hurricanes and the Rangers, his lowest total since he was a 19-year-old rookie with the Canes in 2003-04. He came up empty in five postseason games.
"Actually, as bad as it looked on the stat sheet, I didn't think I played that bad," said Staal, shaking his head ruefully. "It was one of those things. What can you do? So I tried my best just to let it all go and forget about it and then look for a fresh opportunity. And look, I've been around long enough. I skate with a lot of guys over the summer. I knew that I could still play at a high level and be effective in the right situation."
How many times do you hear this from veteran players, especially elite players like Staal who have won at the highest level? The optimism, the self-assuring words that flow easily in spite of evidence on the ice that suggests that maybe time has gotten the better of them.
These are offseason words, and often, they're as light and fleeting as a summer breeze.
Except when they're not. And as it turned out, Staal's words were laced with iron -- as in his own iron will.
He was right. As he closes in on his 1,000th career game, Staal has proven skeptics wrong this season.
When he signed a three-year deal with the Wild worth a relatively modest $10.5 million, observers immediately wondered if GM Chuck Fletcher intended to expose Staal in the expansion draft in June to protect more valuable, younger assets. Now they wonder instead if Fletcher has built a team worthy of Stanley Cup consideration.
Staal's 26 goals are his most since 2010-11, and his 58 points are the second-most on the Wild this season.
The Wild, in spite of a mid-March swoon that has seen them relinquish control of the Central Division lead to the archrival Chicago Blackhawks, are playoff-bound and boast the kind of lineup that suggests meaningful playoff success is attainable.
"The Wild are the real deal," said one top Western Conference executive. "They will compete and be tough to beat in the West."
The former player and longtime talent evaluator has been especially impressed with Staal, who has emerged from a brief funk to continue scoring at an impressive rate.
Former NHL goalie and longtime national TV analyst Darren Pang also thinks Minnesota is on the right track -- especially after its trade-deadline acquisition of center Martin Hanzal, who gives the Wild unprecedented size and depth up the middle.
With Staal acting as the de facto No. 1 center, captain Mikko Koivu can play in a more advantageous role as the second-line pivot -- and Koivu has responded with terrific play at both ends of the ice. Mikael Granlund, who leads the team in scoring, and Charlie Coyle have both been allowed to grow their games on the wing, and Hanzal's addition "puts an identity on every single line," Pang said.
But it all starts with Staal.
"I think his signing in Minny was a really smart move because he was surrounded by quality players on both sides of puck, so he doesn't have to do all of it," Pang said. "All of us who watched Eric Staal last year knew that something was missing. He just wasn't the same player."
One NHL coach said we are seeing "vintage Eric Staal."
"He's been a horse," said the coach, who admitted that the tells his defensemen to pay particular attention to the big pivot when they play Minnesota.
When Staal first won the Stanley Cup, he was not yet 22. He was little more than a boy himself, and not so far removed from going to the local rink and watching his dad, who wore Staal's same No. 12 while playing in beer leagues with his pals in Thunder Bay. And not so far removed from skating outside with younger brother Marc and their two other brothers, Jordan and Jared.
Now Staal is father to three young children, and both the geography and climate in Minnesota remind Staal of his own childhood and the prominent place that hockey played during those formative years -- just as the game now has a big role in his own family's evolution.
"We've got a pond behind the house, and the neighbor's got an outdoor rink," Staal said. "There are outdoor rinks literally everywhere [in Minnesota]."
At school, his kids take gym class on the rink.
"I'll come home and my 5-year-old, Levi, will be at the bedside in the morning, saying, 'Dad, did you win? Dad, did you win?' Then he'll go down and watch the highlights," said Staal.
Even given the Wild's recent woes -- they lost their fifth game in a row Sunday, when they fell to the Winnipeg Jets in what was Staal's 1,000th NHL game, and their sixth game in a row Tuesday, in overtime, against the Washington Capitals -- this team still represents Staal's best chance to go deep in the playoffs since 2009.

Of course, he ponders what it might be like, how it might feel to share those special moments with his young family.
"Oh, I think about it," Staal said, his face lighting up. "I think about winning it again a lot. I've been through it. I've experienced it. I know how great it is and how awesome an experience it is, but I also know how much it takes and how much work, how many things as a group need to go your way.
It's time to go. The coffee shop is filling with folks on their way to work. Staal is on his way to work, too, and happy to do so.
"Every time you get to the payoffs you have an opportunity," he said. "We're going to get there this year with this team, and I'm excited about that."

Staal was only 21 and in his second NHL season when he won the Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006. 

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