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Staal feeling rejuvenated with Wild

Says playing in Minnesota has helped turn career around

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

NEW YORK -- Eric Staal is closing in on some Minnesota Wild records.

The center, who has 36 goals and 67 points in 67 games this season, is six goals and 16 points away from tying Marian Gaborik's records for most goals (42) and points (83) in a Wild season, set in 2007-08.

For a player who faced questions about his longevity and impact two seasons ago, it may seem surprising that 33-year-old Staal has a chance at any of the Wild's records.

But maybe it shouldn't be.

"I've always believed that offensively I can be a contributor within the group and fit within the team," Staal said. "[Minnesota] has been a great fit for me."

Staal said he knew he would be an impact player in the right environment before and after signing a three-year, $10.5 million contract with the Wild on July 1, 2016, but all anyone knew for sure was he was 31, a veteran of 929 NHL games, and he didn't look like the same player he was earlier in his career with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Video: CAR@MIN: Staal snipes a top-shelf power-play goal

Staal averaged 74.5 points per season and 0.978 points per game from 2005-13 (596 points in 609 games). His numbers dropped in his final three seasons in Carolina to 148 points in 219 games, 0.675 points per game, before he was traded to the New York Rangers on Feb. 28, 2016.

He didn't help himself in his short time there, with six points (three goals, three assists) in 20 regular-season games, and none in New York's five Stanley Cup Playoff games.

The Rangers used Staal on the third line and toggled him between wing and center. He was miscast and finished the season with 39 points (13 goals, 26 points) in 83 games. It was his lowest output since his rookie season of 2003-04, when he had 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists) in 81 games.

"There are times in a career where you need a change," said Wild center Matt Cullen, who played with Staal in Carolina in 2005-06 and from 2007-09. "For him, it was a good time to get a change."

Staal chose the Wild because they could give him a defined role as a top-six center and because he felt Minnesota was a market where he could revive his passion for the game.

"Toward the end [in Carolina], it was difficult in a lot of areas," Staal said. "Having a chance to refresh and be in Minnesota, where hockey is a big deal, it's not far from where I grew up [in Thunder Bay, Ontario], there are a ton of teams and kids and families that come down for tournaments and people in that area love the game [was important]."

Staal, who lives in Edina, Minnesota, has a pond behind his house. He bought 3-foot boards from his neighbor and put them up to create a rink for him and his three kids, Parker, Levi and Finley, this winter. They skated once or twice a week until the pond started to melt two weeks ago.

Video: CAR@MIN: Staal buries his second goal of the night

"I vividly remember the first time the pond behind our house froze and I was out there shoveling the snow off for the kids, and my wife was looking at me from the window and I was just looking around and it was like, 'This is unreal,'" Staal said. "It just brought back so many memories that had created that passion in the game for me. It all came flooding back. It sounds kind of silly, but those things are true, and those were the feelings I was having, just back to loving that part of the game and appreciating all those things that you enjoy as a kid. I was getting to experience and feel that again too with my own [kids], so it definitely played a factor [in coming to the Wild]."

There's also the excitement of home-ice advantage. The Wild have sold out 182 consecutive games at Xcel Energy Center. 

"It's a great place to play hockey," Staal said.

He gets a kick out of seeing all the kids standing by the glass during warmups at every home game.

"It just changes things," Cullen said. "It's hard to put it into words, but being where hockey is really important and your kids can see it, as a dad I know it's a big deal and as a player it can really have an impact on you."

None of it would matter if Staal wasn't playing at a top level.

He is tied for fourth in goals with Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin and tied for 17th in points with New York Islanders center John Tavares and Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand. 

Staal's 17 goals since Jan. 25 are second to Winnipeg Jets forward Patrik Laine (18) for the most in the League in that span and his 26 points are tied with New Jersey Devils forward Taylor Hall and Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov for third.

"He's 6-foot-4 and he skates like the wind," Cullen said. "That's one thing that has not changed for him."

Video: DET@MIN: Staal tips home Spurgeon's pass for PPG

Wild forward Zach Parise referenced Staal's instincts as another key reason for his resurgence.

"That's what puts him in the right spots, the way he anticipates the play," Parise said. "It's hockey sense. He's got a really good hockey IQ."

Staal's savvy has allowed Wild coach Bruce Boudreau to vary the center's linemates in his two seasons in Minnesota.

"He never complains," Boudreau said. "That's the sign of a special leader."

Lately, Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker have benefitted from being Staal's wings. The line has 35 points (16 goals, 19 assists) in seven games since Feb. 23, including 13 points (nine goals, four assists) from Staal.

"I feel like I've got a lot of hockey left," Staal said. "I feel like I can play for a number of years yet."

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