To say Eric Staal has resurrected his hockey career this season with the Minnesota Wild might be a stretch, but the former Carolina Hurricanes captain does feel rejuvenated.
“We’re winning a lot of games and I’m having fun,” Staal said in an interview this week. “The transition, no question, has gone well for me. We have a long way to go, half a season, but I’m on a good team that has had a good start and is in a great position. It’s fun to come to work.”
It wasn’t that way the past few seasons with the Hurricanes, even with a younger brother, Jordan, as a teammate. There weren’t as many wins as anyone wanted. The Canes couldn’t reach the Stanley Cup playoffs, adding to the frustration.
“There were things weighing on me,” Staal said. “I was the highest-paid player. I was the captain for a long time and to miss the playoffs year after year, it weighs on you.
“I genuinely did my best every single day to try and bring back the success we had earlier in my career. For whatever reason, it didn’t happen. It got difficult toward the end last season. It was the last year in my contract and …”
Staal was traded. Waiving the no-trade clause in his contract, Staal was dealt to the New York Rangers before the NHL trade deadline.
I genuinely did my best every single day to try and bring back the success we had earlier in my career (with the Hurricanes). For whatever reason, it didn’t happen. It got difficult toward the end last season.
Eric Staal of the Minnesota Wild
The Rangers reached the playoffs and quickly exited, losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Staal, who did not score or play particularly well in the playoffs, then faced another first – NHL free agency.
Staal was 31 and had a Stanley Cup ring from the Canes’ 2006 run, but some wondered if he was an “old” 31. Was there any power left in his stride? Was he still capable of playing center, of producing points after a dropoff his last few seasons with Carolina?
The Wild offered Staal a three-year contract averaging $3.5 million a year, a comedown from the $9.5 million he earned last season. But for Staal, it seemed like the right team, the right place.
“It was an opportunity to regroup and refresh,” he said. “I felt like I had a lot of hockey left in me. I didn’t feel old. I wanted to prove I could still play at a high level.”
Playing for Wild coach Bruce Boudreau, playing center, Staal is tied for the team scoring lead with 30 points after the first 36 games. He has 11 goals – including five game-winners – and 19 assists, and a plus-13 plus/minus rating as the Wild has built a 23-9-4 record heading into a three-game road trip to California.
“Everyone in the family knew the talent was there,” Jordan Staal said. “There were things here that maybe hindered his game. He wanted so much more for this team and there was a lot of pressure on him to be a leader. You could tell it was eating him up a little bit. At times, I think he took a lot on himself and it took a toll on him and began to affect his game.
“He’s playing for a good team now and with their system, it’s more up and down. He can just go out and play and he’s playing hard and well. That’s nice to see.”
The Wild’s last game was a downer, albeit an exciting New Year’s Eve matchup. The Columbus Blue Jackets came into the Wild’s Xcel Energy Center with a 14-game winning streak and the Wild had won 12 straight overall and eight straight at home.
The Blue Jackets, the best story and team in the NHL this season, won 4-2. That done, it was time for Staal and the Wild to go back to work.
Staal says living in Minnesota has been nice, although a change from North Carolina. He said there’s a pond behind his house that has frozen over, that his boys enjoy skating on it, noting his two oldest sons have joined a local youth hockey association.
“Both forwards,” he said, chuckling. “We’ll see how that goes. It is fun watching them improve and get better.”
Staal, who turned 32 on Oct. 29, still keeps up with the Canes’ doings, and not just how Jordan Staal is playing. He said he quickly texted Jorge Alves on Saturday after the Canes’ equipment manager, needed as an emergency backup goalie, entered the Tampa Bay Lightning game with 7.6 seconds left in regulation, making an NHL debut at 37.
“That was awesome,” Staal said. “I was so pumped. What a class move by (Canes coach) Bill Peters to put him in. It’s a moment Jorge will have forever.”
Eric and Jordan Staal once rode to Canes games together and their families spent a lot of time together. Now, it’s FaceTime and texting that keeps them in touch.
Jordan’s daughter, Abigail, had her second birthday on Monday. That was a cause for celebration, even from afar in Eric’s case.
“We miss them and we miss a lot of people in Raleigh,” Eric Staal said. “There were a lot of good times there. Some difficult times, but a lot more good times.”
CAROLINA HURRICANES AT ST. LOUIS BLUES
When: Thursday, 8 p.m.
Where: Scottrade Center, St. Louis.