Eric Staal had visions of playing his entire NHL career for the Carolina Hurricanes.
The 31-year-old, two-time All-Star was selected by Carolina with the second pick of the 2003 Draft. In 2006, he hoisted the Stanley Cup in a Hurricanes sweater. In 2010, he was named team captain.
But last season, Staal said he realized just how difficult and rare it is for a player to only wear one jersey in the National Hockey League. Prior to the trade deadline, he was dealt to the New York Rangers, leaving a young Hurricanes roster with eyes on the future.
Staal still felt like he had plenty of wind left in his sails, and wanted that taste of victory, and hockey's grandest prize.
"It was time," Staal said. "It was one of those times where the opportunity to possibly change at the deadline was something that I needed to do personally, and it didn’t work out the way I envisioned it would when I did leave for a lot of different reasons."
On Wednesday, Staal stood in the locker room at Xcel Energy Center, introduced to the media five days after he signed with the Wild at the start of free agency.
Motivation has been a word Staal has kept in his vocabulary in the near week he's been a member of the Wid. It comes from wanting to prove he's got plenty left in the tank.
"It's an opportunity for me hopefully to hit the refresh button, and go out there and enjoy playing the game," he said, wearing a green Wild jersey. "For me, the first time going through the free agent process, it was more or less about looking for the opportunity to play an important role on a good team. Minnesota is a good team, and I felt like there were some spots I could fit to help make a difference."
Staal played 20 games for the Rangers to finish the regular season, scoring three goals and six points. He went pointless in the Rangers five-game first round series loss against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Of those 25 games, many came on the left wing, a position Staal, a center, has rarely played. Staal was shooting the puck less, but still driving puck possession, and suppressing shots and scoring chances against.
"A lot of things just went wrong," said Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau after Minnesota signed Staal on July 1. "I don’t think he liked playing left wing. I think he’s the kind of the guy that wants the puck in the middle and wants to handle it and play with it. He wants to be the guy."
Though Staal never specifically cited the move to left wing as something that inhibited his production, he has said plenty of times the opportunity to play center factored into his decision to sign in Minnesota.
It's something Boudreau talked to Staal about, and something Zach Parise, who could play to Staal's left, discussed when Parise called Staal to recruit him during the free agency shopping period.
"It was an honest conversation," Staal said. "He thought there was an opportunity there for me to play center, and to play with some good players, he being one of them."
Staal has eclipsed the 100-point mark once in his career, the same year Carolina won a Cup. Those seasons are far and few between in the NHL now, though Staal, who beginning with the 2006 season, had seven years of recording 70 or more points, hasn’t done so since.
There's no number in Staal's head when it comes to a point total in his first season with the Wild, but he said he knows he has another level to get back to.
"The way the last year went and the one before that, for me in my mind there’s a lot of circumstances that go along with it as to why they went the way they did," he said on July 1. "But I believe I’m still a very good player. I still feel I will be a contributor and can be a contributor in a very good team's top six."
The Wild's brass was likeminded, giving Staal a three-year contract. His new head coach, who coached against Staal's Hurricanes 32 times when he was behind the Washington Capitals' bench in the former Southeast Division, has seen it firsthand.
"When he was on top of his game, Carolina beat us all the time," Boudreau said. "He would get three or four points and that meant he was having the puck between the blue lines, carrying the puck; he was a dominant force everywhere.
"Things haven’t gone well for him the last year and a half statistically speaking, but I have a hard time thinking that 31 (years old) in today’s day and age with how fit the players are that he’s all of a sudden gotten old. There’s a lot more for him to give. He’ll be rejuvenated by the situation here."