The New York Rangers deadline trade for Eric Staal last year backfired badly. Staal scored just six points in 20 regular season games with the Rangers, and he failed to redeem himself in five pointless games against the Penguins in the 2016 Playoffs. New York was eliminated and the trade for Staal was unanimously called a bust.
To almost everyone, especially Rangers fans, it appeared that Staal simply wasn’t the player that he was for over a decade in Carolina.
But the Minnesota Wild and general manager Chuck Fletcher saw things differently. Staal signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract with Minnesota in the offseason after being courted by Zach Parise. A $3.5 million cap hit for a top-six center in his early thirties was a great deal for a team that needed to add offense and some star power after buying out Thomas Vanek.
And one-quarter of the way through the season that contract is looking better by the day.
In Staal’s first 21 games with the Wild it looked like he turned back the clock. But he hasn’t been playing unsustainable hockey — doesn’t have an untenable shooting percentage or an inflated PDO. He’s simply been playing the effective, productive hockey that made him a star in Carolina.
He is making Minnesota a better, deeper team down the middle.
Rangers fans might find it hard to believe, but Staal has been a driving force for Minnesota’s offense. He has five goals and eight primary assists this season. Only Charlie Coyle has as many primary points for the Wild in the first quarter of the season.
What’s most impressive about the eldest Staal brother’s primary point production is that has not scored a goal since Nov. 10. He has come up empty on his last 26 shots in his last nine games, but he is still tied for third on the Wild in goals and is on pace to return to the 20 goal mark.
Staal’s return to form has been a huge boon to the Wild’s offense. He won’t be the 70 point stud he was five years ago with the Hurricanes, but he doesn’t have to be. His production has been critical with Mikko Koivu struggling to score, Parise missing seven games and Jason Pominville still searching for his scoring touch.
And Minnesota head coach Bruce Boudreau has taken notice.
Staal is currently third among Wild forwards in average time on ice per game. He’s leading his new team in points, assists and shots. He has played his way onto the top line centering Parise. And there have been some encouraging signs of chemistry between the two former Eastern Conference superstars.
The Wild are asking Staal to be the top-six center that he is. And that is something that the Rangers never really gave him a chance to be over the 25 games with the club.
“Deep down, I genuinely enjoyed it,” Staal said when reflecting on his time with the Rangers. “I wasn’t going to go in there and play first-line center and knock [Derick Brassard] or [Derek Stepan] out of their positions. It was for me to try and fit and contribute in other ways.”
Staal summed up his time with the Rangers in late October perfectly when he admitted, “It didn’t work.”
But, for the time being, Staal playing hockey in Minnesota is working great for both the Wild and for him. His big frame is creating space for his linemates and he looks comfortable with his new identity and role.
Staal no longer has to be the captain and the face of a salary cap floor franchise. He no longer has to be the deadline day acquisition battling against monumental expectations. The expectations are very different in Minnesota. Staal just has to be what he already is: a great center. And the early returns show that he is going to be worth every cent of his $10.5 million deal.