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Staal's dream season part of career resurgence in Minnesota

All-Star forward reaches 40 goals for first time in nearly a decade after finding new life with Wild

by Dan Myers @DanMyers / Wild.com

Video: Becoming Wild Webisode: Leading the Way

Most professional athletes will tell you they never, ever read their clips.

During the spring and summer of 2016, Eric Staal admits he not only read the clips, but he heard the all the whispers.

"He's done." 

"He's on the downslide."

"He's got nothing left."

"His best days are behind him."

An oft-reserved but proud man and one of the best players of his generation, Staal went about finding the place that was the best fit for him to get his career back on track. And in Minnesota, he found exactly what he was looking for.

"It's been a lot of fun. I knew coming here, I was joining an already very good team with some players hoping to do bigger and better things. And I was just trying to fit and be a part of it," said Staal, 33. "Now this being towards the end of my second year here, it's been real enjoyable. We've got some great players, some good people who care and are wanting to win, and that's all I want to do. It's been fun."

In coming to Minnesota, Staal found a group of veteran players with their gaze cast in one direction: winning a Stanley Cup.

It's been more than a decade since Staal hoisted the Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes. Back then, he was just 21 years old, having just completed his second season in the NHL.

That campaign would be his best, both individually and with a team. He scored a career-high 45 goals and 100 points that season, then added nine more goals and 28 points in 25 playoff games. 

Perhaps the run spoiled him. 

Three seasons later, Staal returned to the playoffs and helped the Hurricanes to the Eastern Conference Finals. 

But in 12 seasons with the club that drafted him with the second overall pick in the 2003 NHL Draft, those two years marked his only two trips to the playoffs.

In the final year of his contract in 2015-16, the Hurricanes did right by their captain and traded him to the New York Rangers for a shot at another Cup. Unfortunately for Staal, things didn't work out on Broadway. He scored just three goals and six points in 20 games there. New York was eliminated from the playoffs in five games. 

That's when the whispers about his future turned into more of a murmur. 

"I feel like I've been motivated ever since I've tried to make it to the NHL. I've always been extremely competitive," Staal said shortly after he was named to the All-Star Game earlier this season. "But there's definitely a little bit added there, just because of how tough those last couple years [in Carolina and New York] were, mentally, and there was a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that people don't know you deal with at home, with hockey and life. 

"So there was a lot of motivation to try and find success, and it's been a good fit. But I still want to prove there's a lot more left."

If he didn't do it last year, when he scored a team-leading 28 goals and 65 points, Staal has certainly done just that in 2017-18. 

In addition to being named an All-Star for the fifth time in his career, Staal on Tuesday in Nashville reached the 40-goal plateau for the third time in his career and the first time since 2008-09. He'd already surpassed 70 points for the first time since 2012, and with a hot finish to the season could approach 80 points for the first time since 2007-08.

Video: Eric Staal's 40-goal season


Getting comfortable

There are many factors that have played starring roles in Staal's State of Hockey resurgence, but he says playing in a hockey-crazed market ranks near the top.

While Staal loved his time in Carolina, the pressure to win and the attention it gained were never quite the same as it is in Minnesota, where the Wild is appointment viewing for hundreds of thousands of fans on a nightly basis.

With another crowd north of 19,000 on Sunday against the Boston Bruins, the Wild sold out Xcel Energy Center for the 186th consecutive time. All but 65 of the 755 home games in the history of the franchise have been played in front of a full arena. 

It sounds cliche, but playing in front of a loud arena with knowledgable fans has provided a big spark for Staal in his nearly two seasons with the Wild. 

"I think that's definitely helped my game, brought a little bit more excitement coming to the rink every day. This is a great atmosphere to play hockey in, and it's a lot of fun for my family," Staal said. "It always adds a little bit more to your game and fitting in with these guys, enjoying playing this game in front of the fans here has definitely been a blast."

It's not often that Minnesota winters are a good selling point, but it was for Staal, his wife Tanya and their sons Parker, Levi and Finley. With his hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario about a seven-hour drive north from the Twin Cities, the cold and the snow isn't something Staal has ever shied away from.

On the contrary, the opportunity to have his kids grow up in the same sort of hockey-mad culture was something that was extremely important to Staal as he was trying to decide where to resume his career.

The vision of skating with his boys outside, on the pond, with snow falling became too much to resist. 

It was a selling point made to him by a man who also knew from experience: fellow Stanley Cup champion and good buddy Matt Cullen, who re-joined his pal this season after signing with his homestate team following two years in Pittsburgh.

Video: Staal delivers hat trick hats

"He's in a place where he knows his kids are in an outstanding place to grow up. They're all hockey players and they're playing hockey, and he's got them on the outdoor rink," Cullen said. "From my perspective, I can understand where he's at in that it's such a good feeling to see your kids growing up the same way that you grew up. It's a great place to raise a family.

"I think he's kind of adopted this area as home and he seems to really be comfortable. I think the feelings are mutual; I know the fans love having him here, and he's a great guy to have your kids look up to."

Video: MIN@NSH: Staal ties it with his 40th of the season


A coach's dream

Boudreau coached against Staal for many years when both were in the Southeast Division, the former as coach of the Washington Capitals and the latter as captain in Carolina. 

Long an admirer of Staal, Boudreau was anxious for the opportunity to sell Minnesota to him not long after taking over as coach of the Wild.

While many others, both inside and outside the League, questioned whether Staal had anything left, Boudreau was not among them. The coach pitched his desire to have Staal center his top line, saying that he believed there was plenty left in the tank.

Boudreau's confidence has been rewarded in spades.

"He comes to play every night," Boudreau said earlier this season. "You need that No. 1 center, and he's filled the gap for us very nicely the last couple years."

In many ways, Staal really is a coach's dream. 

Not only does he produce on the ice, but he's a class human, a quality leader and someone who goes about his business quietly. 

Video: Boudreau reacts to Staal being named First Star

"It's been great and he does it, it seems like, every second night with different wingers. And he never complains, he just goes out there and plays," Boudreau said. "He's a real professional, that's the one thing I've gotten from knowing him these last two years."

Staal's ability to produce with any number of wingers by his side has made his season even more special. 

Lately, he's found a bunch of success with Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund at his left and right. But as well as they've played in patches over the last month, folks often forget they had never been a line until a late-February road trip to New York. 

Prior to that, Staal had played with virtually everyone else on the roster, from Nino Niederreiter and Zach Parise to Daniel Winnik, Marcus Foligno and Charlie Coyle. 

His ability to be a bit of a chameleon is what makes him an elite player.

"Certain guys can do certain things better than others," Staal said. "When I'm with Granny and Zucks, we move the puck around real well and I can find myself in some holes and have pucks in those areas to get shots off. When you're with different guys, it's about getting pucks low or back to the point, or off rebounds. There's different ways to play with different people."

Having that ability to adapt and produce regardless is not an easy thing to master, but it does come from one basic premise Staal said he's followed his entire career.

"I've always felt that if you're getting pucks to the net consistently, you're going to give yourself the best chance to produce offensively," Staal said. "I've always considered myself more of a shooter. You make the plays that are there, that are open."


Not done yet

Staal says he's never been one to look at individual numbers heading into a season. He's never once said, "I need to score 30 goals this season," or "I'd like to get 75 points."

"Year-to-year, I don't think about specific numbers," Staal said. "I just play the game. Every day, every night that you're out there, [you] play the best that you can and try to help your team win the game. This year, it's just been a year where it's kind of snowballed goal-scoring wise. I've been on the right end of some pretty good plays. And when you have that happen, you want to hold onto it and keep it going as long as you can."

The number that he does think about perhaps more than any other is one. Staal has won one Stanley Cup in his career, and he'd like to add another before he's done.

While he's said multiple times this season that he wants to continue playing for a while yet -- and he's certainly showing no signs of slowing down -- winning the Stanley Cup again is basically all that's left for him to accomplish in professional hockey.

He's pretty much done everything else.

"That's the No. 1 for sure; that's why we play," Staal said. "It's why you suit up every season. It's why you train in the summer, it's to give yourself a chance to try and win a Stanley Cup. I feel like we've got a good group here, we've got a lot of core guys who want to do more, who care and are trying to do what it takes and I just want to be a part of that."


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