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Staal ready to prove the doubters wrong... again

Wild forward looks to build on 42-goal, 76-point All-Star campaign from a year ago

by Dan Myers @DanMyers / Wild.com

ST. PAUL -- Eric Staal has read all the preseason prognosticators. He's seen all the experts scoff at the notion that he can follow up his 42-goal, 76-point All-Star campaign with anything close to what he did a year ago.

Eric Staal has read it all, and it motivates him.

"Honestly, it does," Staal said. "That's the only way you should be [when you read that]. Obviously, goal-scoring wise, it was a big year for me last year. But I approach it the same way every year and I try to be a consistent contributor to the offense and a good two-way player at the other end of the rink."

Of course, Staal has been dealing with doubters for the last few years now.

Video: Strong finish to week of camp

Some said he was done when he was traded from Carolina to the New York Rangers at the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline. The deal was designed to give him "one final shot" at a championship, nevermind the fact that Staal was still just 31 at the time.

After a three-goal, six-point performance in 20 games with New York, Staal became a free agent. Three days before free agency began, The Hockey News came out with its top players available that summer.

Staal wasn't ranked among the top 10.

"Prime candidate to be overpaid," was the analysis provided by the publication. "Not the offensive force he once was. Has stopped shooting the puck. Still, he's hardly ancient at 31."

Instead, the three-year, $10.5 million contract Staal signed with the Wild on July 1, 2016 has turned out to be one of the biggest bargains in the history of NHL free agency. 

In two seasons in Minnesota, Staal hasn't missed a game, has scored 70 goals, 141 points and is a plus-25. 

Yet the doubters remain.

"I think you'd be hard pressed to say that he can't [score 42 goals] again," said Wild forward Jason Zucker. "I believe he can and I believe he's going to have a lot of success this year. I just hope it's with me and [Mikael Granlund]."

In the early days of training camp, Wild coach Bruce Boudreau has re-united the line of Staal, Zucker and Granlund, which formed one of the top lines in all of hockey for a stretch in February and March of last season. 

In one game last season, the trio scored a combined 14 points in a game against the St. Louis Blues, with Staal leading the way with a hat trick.

Eventually the line's productivity petered out, but Zucker said he thinks there was a good reason for it.

"We got put together at a pretty heavy point in the year, so we didn't have much time to practice," Zucker said. "We had a lot of success our first few games and then we dropped off for a couple games because we didn't get to practice much together. 

"It's nice to get that practice now and hopefully get some of that chemistry back."

If Zucker, coming off a 33-goal season himself, and Granlund, who has posted back-to-back seasons with at least 67 points, remain on Staal's flanks, there's no reason why he can't approach 80 points for the first time since the 2007-08 season.

Not with the way he trains and in the condition he's come to camp in this season, motivated to again prove the doubters wrong.

"That's the thought. That's what we're hoping for," Staal said. "Last year, with the injuries we had and the way our lineup shook out, I played with a lot of different players. But during the year, when I ended up with the two of them, we ended up with some really good chemistry and had some really good games. Hopefully we can get to that early here."

Do not count Boudreau as someone questioning whether Staal can build on his All-Star season from last season. One of Staal's biggest fans since before he even signed with the Wild, Boudreau said he's counting on more of the same from his veteran centerman.

"I just assume he's going to stay the same," Boudreau said. "He may not score 42 goals again but as long as he plays the same way again, that's fine by me. He looks good, he's in great shape; I expect him to be good."


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