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Staal Fitting in Nicely with Wild

Veteran center turning back the clock with great start to the season

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers /

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Wild has long relied on continuity as one way to stay competitive. Having made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in four consecutive seasons, there hasn't been much reason to break up perhaps the most successful continuous run of teams in franchise history.

In need of some tweaking, however, the Wild went out last summer and made a couple of moves. The splashiest was bringing in coach Bruce Boudreau to guide the club behind the bench.

The other was the acquisition of center Eric Staal.

When Staal signed with Minnesota a few hours after the free agency period began on July 1, most of the prognosticators wrote it off as a minor move. 

"Nothing left in the tank," some said. "His best years are behind him," others insisted. Coming off arguably the most disappointing season of his 12-year NHL career, Staal -- who turned 32 two days before Halloween -- has been on a mission to punish those who have doubted.

So far, mission accomplished.

Through 20 games this season, Staal has five goals and has chipped in with 10 assists, putting him on pace to surpass 60 points for the first time in three years.

"I've got a long way to go. It's early, but it feels good. I'm confident in what I can do, how I can play, and I need to be put in position to be successful," Staal said. "Bruce has got me out there … playing with some very good players. I think everybody's pushing each other to get better every day. It's been fun to be part of this group."

Boudreau knew what he was getting in Staal and was thrilled with the addition. 

An old nemesis back in the Southeast Division when Staal captained the Carolina Hurricanes against Boudreau's Washington Capitals, the coach has seen first hand what Staal is capable of. 

"When I talked to him … I thought he was so excited about the opportunity," Boudreau said after Staal signed. "It didn't have much to do with money or any of that; he wanted the opportunity to be the Eric Staal that he was in the past. And I told him he would definitely get that chance here."

Boudreau has been a man of his word, helping to build the Wild's offense around Staal. He has spent much of the early part of the season next to Charlie Coyle, and when he's been healthy, Zach Parise.

"I think being put in a position to play at my strengths has been key," Staal said. "I came into the summer looking for an opportunity to be put in a position to show what I can do and play to the strengths of my game, and I came in here knowing there was an opportunity … playing with some pretty good players in a role that I'm confident and comfortable in."

At times, the trio has formed the best line on the club, including this week in wins over the Winnipeg Jets and Pittsburgh Penguins. 

With Staal and Coyle's size and Parise's willingness to play bigger than he actually is, the group has seized on chemistry and has been a great mix of grit and skill.

"As a line, we're doing some good things, creating some open ice and making good plays," Staal said. "It's a long year head of me yet, but I like where I'm at personally with how I feel on the ice. Hopefully I can continue to help this team win games." 

Off the ice, Staal has fit in quite nicely. On a team filled with former and current letter-wearers, the veteran has been a solid leader in the dressing room while also being a lead-by-example presence.

The adjustment to life in Minnesota has also been easy for him, his wife Tanya and their three sons, who recently sold their home in Raleigh, North Carolina. Staal, a native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, about a six-hour drive north of the Twin Cities, spent plenty of time in the area growing up.

"I knew the area, knew the people, knew how the people were, knew a lot of things off the ice before making the transition to move here," Staal said. "My kids and wife have been loving the area. We feel pretty Minnesotan already, so it's been good."

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