The curious case of how Eric Staal turned back time and regained his scoring touch does not involve switching sticks, swearing off red meat or adopting a fancy off-season workout regiment.
Like most hockey streaks and slumps, it starts with confidence.
In the summer of 2016, Staal was a 31-year-old free agent coming off his worst season in the NHL. After scoring just 10 goals in 63 games for the Carolina Hurricanes, he was sent away at the trade deadline to the New York Rangers, where he failed to register a point in a first-round playoff exit.
The word around the league was that Staal was done. He was too old and too slow for a league that was becoming increasingly younger and faster. He was no longer on Canada’s national team radar, was no longer considered a top-line player. He certainly wasn’t worth anything close to the $8.25-million he had been earning.
And then the Minnesota Wild called.
Though the team’s three-year, $10.5-million offer was steep drop from what he made in Carolina, the contract came with a mighty big incentive.
“We told him right from the start that he would be our No. 1 centre,” Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau said. “That he would play with No. 1 guys and be on the No. 1 power play. I think that’s more where he was used to, but also where he should have been in the first place.
“What happened in Carolina was in his last five years they never made the playoffs and the longer they went (without qualifying), they used Eric as a mentor and eventually they put him on left wing on the third line. That’s where they used him in New York, by the way. They might have thought that he was declining or what have you, but I knew from my Washington days that when Eric Staal was on top of his game, Carolina beat Washington.
“I couldn’t see how at age 31, which he was at the time, him declining that much. Great players don’t.”
Boudreau was right. In his first season in Minnesota, Staal scored 28 goals — his most since 2010-11 — and had 65 points in 82 games. This year, at the age of 33, he’s having his best year in more than decade.
Staal, who has 39 goals and 71 points in 73 games, is tied for fourth in the Rocket Richard Trophy race. The last time he produced at his rate was when he was 20 years old and scored 45 goals and 100 points in his second NHL season.
“For me with Bruce, since talking to him in the summer before signing with the Wild, I could just tell that he believed in me as a player,” Staal said. “He believed in me that I could still be a difference-maker in this league and I could just tell that he was going to give me an opportunity. And then when you’re given that chance, you just want to run with it as best you can.”
Tied for 20th in the NHL with 20 goals in the first 49 games heading into the All-Star break, Staal has exploded in the second half of the season. Only Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine (19 years old) and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid (21) have scored more in the last three months than Staal, who has 19 goals in his past 24 games.
“Since Christmas on, the pucks started to go in pretty frequently,” Staal said. “When you have that confidence and you feel that ability, you want to keep it as long as you can. I hope it stays with me.”
This might be the time in the story when you start to wonder if Staal has enough in the tank to not only survive the rest of the season, but also the playoffs. It’s a funny thing to ask of someone who is 33 — not 43. And yet, a look at the players who were selected after Staal (second overall) in the 2003 draft is a commentary on the relatively short lifespan of an NHLer.
Sure, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (first overall in 2003) is putting up Vezina-worthy numbers in Vegas, and San Jose’s Brent Burns (20th) and Boston’s Patrice Bergeron (45th) are both at the top of their games. But they tend to be the exceptions in a league where Nathan Horton (third) and Mike Richards (24th) are no longer playing and Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf (19th), Ryan Kesler (23rd) and Corey Perry (28th) are shells of their former selves.
So how is Staal doing it? It can’t just be confidence and increased opportunity. After all, 33-year-old Zach Parise is averaging about the same ice time in Minnesota, but with nine goals and 16 points in 34 games this season appears to have fallen off that great precipice that is old age.
“He may be older, but I would still put his skating against most of the young kids in the NHL,” Boudreau said. “It’s similar to Patty (Marleau, who is 38), where they were both great skaters when they were young and they’ve been able to keep that.”
Staal has also been much more efficient this year. While he’s not taking the 300-plus shots that characterized his early years in Carolina, he’s inching his 6-foot-4 and 205-pound frame closer to the net to make the most of his opportunities. Staal’s 18.8 per cent scoring rate is five percentage points better than last season and more than double of what he was doing in his final seasons in Carolina.
“I’m getting good looks every night and if you’re getting good looks, you just have a feeling that they’re going to go in,” Staal said. “And for the most part, that’s been the case for most of this season. When you have that feeling you just want to hold onto it.”
In other words, don’t expect Boudreau to cut back his minutes any time soon.
“You can tell that he wants the puck,” the Wild coach said. “At that point in time, you just keep putting him out there.”
Time stands still
While Staal is the oldest player in the top 100 in NHL scoring, he is not the only veteran who has turned back the clock.
Marc-Andre Fleury, 33 years old, Vegas
The Golden Knights goalie, who is ranked second with a 2.18 goals-against average and .930 save percentage, is why the expansion franchise has the best record in the Pacific Division. If he hadn’t missed time because of injury earlier in the season, the Vezina Trophy would be his.
Dustin Brown, 33, Los Angeles
This is the sixth season in which Brown (23 goals and 53 points in 74 games) has reached the 20-goal and 50-point mark. But the last time he did it was six years ago. With Jeff Carter missing a third of the season, Brown’s production been needed.
Roberto Luongo, 38, Florida
Injuries kept Luongo out of the lineup for chunks of the season, but since returning at the end of February he has a 9-4-1 record to help lead the team’s seemingly unlikely push for a playoff spot.
Patrick Marleau, 38, Toronto
After scoring 16 goals sand 25 points before the All-Star break, Marleau’s production has slowed in the second half. Still, with 23 goals and 40 points, he is on pace for a similar season as last year.
Zdeno Chara, 41, Boston
It was a couple of years ago that we were writing Chara’s obit. But after changing to a vegan diet, he is back to logging 23 minutes a night while maintaining an impressive plus-23 rating that is tied for fourth in the league.
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