NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 29:  Eric Staal #12 of the New York Rangers skates against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Madison Square Garden on February 29, 2016 in New York City. The Rangers defeated the Blue Jackets 2-1.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Wild need Eric Staal to be ‘the Eric Staal that he was in the past’

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On a day when hundreds of millions of dollars were committed to unrestricted free agents, the Eric Staal signing barely made a ripple in NHL waters.

The Minnesota Wild committed just $10.5 million over three years to Staal — an entirely reasonable sum considering it was July 1, a day when reason often goes flying out the window.

Just don’t take that to mean the Staal signing isn’t an important one for the Wild. Because, in fact, it’s a vitally important signing. The 31-year-old’s contract may not reflect it, but he was brought on to play a top-six role next season, possibly one that will see him centering Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle.

“He wanted the opportunity to be the Eric Staal that he was in the past,” head coach Bruce Boudreau told reporters. “And I told him he would definitely get that chance here.”

And he’ll get that chance because the Wild are thin at the center position. (Remember what Thomas Vanek said last year? “We don’t have maybe the strongest depth in the middle.”)

Signing Staal was a calculated risk by GM Chuck Fletcher. He could’ve gone harder after free agents Frans Nielsen or David Backes, but that would’ve been considerably more expensive, and those two are even older than Staal.

Another option would’ve been to trade for a center — perhaps somebody like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — but that would’ve cost the Wild a good, young defenseman like Jonas Brodin or Matt Dumba.

And so he rolled the dice on Staal, hoping that the once-elite center can be elite, or at least in that neighborhood, again.

Certainly, Staal has to be better than he was for the Rangers, after New York got him at the trade deadline. He had just six points in 20 games, then no points in five playoff games.

“I still feel I can be a contributor in a very good team’s top six,” said Staal. “I’m going to get an opportunity on a team that’s hungry to win and hungry to be a top team. I’ve got to prove it.”

Related: With an aging core, the Wild could be Boudreau’s biggest challenge yet

Canucks, Rangers reportedly have interest in Vanek

Minnesota Wild left wing Thomas Vanek controls the puck during NHL hockey training camp in St. Paul, Minn., Friday, Sept. 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
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If July 1 passes and the Vancouver Canucks haven’t been able to land Milan Lucic or Loui Eriksson or one of the other wingers they’re targeting in free agency, then they might consider signing Thomas Vanek.

Yes, that’s how far Vanek’s worth has fallen. He’s become a backup plan for one of the worst teams in the NHL, a team that finished last season with more goals than only the New Jersey Devils.

It wasn’t even three years ago that the Islanders offered Vanek a deal that was reportedly in the neighborhood of $50 million over seven years.

Things are sure different now. From News 1130 Sports in Vancouver:

To be fair to Vanek, the Canucks aren’t the only team that might have interest in the 32-year-old winger. (“Interest” being a relative term.)

From the New York Post:

The Rangers, we’re told, intend to touch base with Thomas Vanek and gauge his willingness to sign the type of one-year reclamation contract that Benoit Pouliot did when he joined the Blueshirts for $1.3 million in 2013-14. Pouliot used that season as a springboard to the five-year, $20 million deal he then signed the following summer with the Oilers.

It would make perfect sense, too, for the Islanders to check in on Vanek, who melded beautifully with Tavares (and, uh oh, Okposo) during his 47-game lend-lease tryout with the club during 2013-14.

Last week, Vanek was bought out by the Wild following an 18-goal season.

Yandle calls Panthers an ‘all-in organization,’ excited to play with Ekblad

SUNRISE, FL - APRIL 15: Florida Panthers fans hold a team flag near the end of the game against the New York Islanders in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the NHL 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the BB&T Center on April 15, 2016 in Sunrise, Florida. The Panthers defeated the Islanders 3-1. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
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According to Keith Yandle, the decision to sign with the Florida Panthers for the next six years went beyond the $44.45 million he’ll be paid.

“I learned how much the ownership wants to win,” the 29-year-old defenseman said this morning about his negotiations with the club.

“You feel like it’s an all-in organization.”

That’s not something that’s been said very often about the Panthers, a franchise that many saw — and some still see — as a prime relocation candidate.

But with new ownership, a new deal with the county, and a young team on the rise, things really do seem different now.

“We’re thrilled,” co-owner Doug Cifu told the Miami Herald. “[The Yandle signing] shows that top players want to win in Florida. Keith wants to win the Stanley Cup in Florida. That’s why we were his top priority and vice versa.”

Yandle, whose rights were traded by the Rangers earlier this week, is also pretty excited at the prospect of playing with 20-year-old Aaron Ekblad.

Ekblad, by the way, is reportedly close to signing an eight-year extension worth in the neighborhood of $60 million. He has one year left on his entry-level deal, so an extension of that length would buy four years of unrestricted free agency.

Related: Where will Brian Campbell sign?

Report: Coyotes lock up Goligoski for five years, Datsyuk deal discussed (Update: Goligoski deal official)

DALLAS, TX - APRIL 22:  Alex Goligoski #33 of the Dallas Stars celebrates his goal against the Minnesota Wild in the third period in Game Five of the Western Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at American Airlines Center on April 22, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The Arizona Coyotes are currently the furthest team from the 2016-17 salary cap ceiling of $73 million, but that might not be the case for very long.

Multiple outlets indicate that the Coyotes have a five-year contract lined up for defenseman Alex Goligoski. ESPN’s Craig Custance reports that the deal would be in the “neighborhood” of a $5.5 million cap hit, which would put the total around $27.5 million.

Update: The Coyotes have officially announced Goligoski’s five-year deal. Arizona didn’t disclose his salary.

Arizona Sports’ Craig Morgan backs up Custance while TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported that it’s at least expected to be a five-year deal.

The Coyotes have been struggling for some time, yet an influx of new talent makes Arizona quite a bit more interesting. You can do worse than the puck-moving combination of Goligoski and Oliver Ekman-Larsson:

While demand keeps climbing for defensemen of Goligoski’s ilk, supply continues to shrink and shrink.

The Coyotes made a bold move in acquiring Goligoski’s rights for a fifth-rounder, but it could pay off. They’re expected to make this official during a press conference scheduled for Wednesday.

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Morgan floats another interesting nugget: there were at least discussions that the Coyotes might absorb Pavel Datsyuk‘s $7.5 million cap hit for 2016-17.

It’s likely that Goligoski + Datsyuk would get the Coyotes close to the floor, although Arizona might be less inclined to do so now. Then again, the Coyotes are already absorbing Chris Pronger‘s $4.935 million cap hit, so they’re certainly not against the concept.

The Red Wings may want to at least keep the Coyotes in mind when making calls, although Arizona’s sights may now be set on guys who … you know, are actually slated to play next season.

‘It doesn’t matter where you’re playing’: Auston Matthews goes from desert to top of the draft

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About a year before Auston Matthews was born, professional hockey arrived in Arizona.

He took in his first Coyotes game as a 2-year-old, and his gaze never strayed far from the ice.

“From a young age,” Matthews said, “I wanted to be an NHL hockey player.”

Learning to skate might never be a top-of-the-bucket-list item for the youth of the American Southwest, with a prohibitive climate and a scant tradition, but hockey has been on the rise in the Phoenix area since the franchise relocated from Winnipeg in 1996. The team has struggled financially, with attendance at the suburban arena in Glendale frequently landing near the bottom of the league, but the embodiment of the sport’s expansion will be on stage Friday at the NHL draft.

Matthews is expected to be the first pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“It’s what you think about since you were a little kid,” said Matthews, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound center who joined the U.S. national team development program three years ago and spent the past season as an 18-year-old with Zurich in Switzerland’s top professional league.

He could have picked baseball, which his father played in college, but the presence of the Coyotes spawned an admiration of players like Danny Briere and Shane Doan and an appreciation for the Zamboni. Matthews was on a traveling team by age 8, heading to tournaments in Chicago, Detroit and Canada where the game is a well-established pastime.

“A lot of people, when they hear you play hockey and you’re from Arizona, kind of have this mindset where they don’t even think there’s hockey down there,” Matthews said, “but I never really thought about it too much as far as that goes. I always had a goal to make the NHL. It doesn’t matter where you’re playing.”

The state of the sport in his hometown of Scottsdale has been strengthening, year after year.

“The amount of teams that are here now and the quality of coaches and players that are here now are much better than they used to be,” Matthews said.

According to USA Hockey’s annual participation statistics , the number of 18-and-under players in Arizona increased from 2,836 during the 2005-06 season to 3,803 in 2015-16, a 34 percent gain. Neighbor state California, which has had three NHL franchises for nearly 23 years, reported a spike of 54 percent from 7,589 in 2005-06 to 11,680 in 2015-16. National leader Minnesota, by comparison, saw a 10 percent jump from 43,053 to 47,367 over that span.

“It just bodes well for the future now. There’s been so much attention with Auston Matthews,” NHL central scouting director Dan Marr said. “I think you’re going to see a spurt of hockey continue in that area. Everybody’s going to want to grow up and follow in his footsteps.”

Just like “The Great One.”

All-time leading NHL scorer Wayne Gretzky’s joining the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 helped spur interest in Southern California. His partial ownership and stint as coach of the Coyotes opened up another area for his service as an unofficial ambassador.

“There are a lot of great athletes coming out of Arizona and California and Florida,” Gretzky said. “So it’s a matter of knowledge and it’s a matter of showing the kids, `Look, try this game.’ It’s a great sport when you’re 7 or 10 years old.”

Another soon-to-be high first-round draft pick Friday, defenseman Jakob Chychrun, is from the Fort Lauderdale area in South Florida. So is Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere.

“The more people that come to watch the games, the more they fall in love with the game,” Florida Panthers general manager Tom Rowe said.

NHL hockey: Coming soon to Las Vegas.

That’s where Minnesota Wild left wing Jason Zucker was raised, rooting from afar for Pavel Datsyuk and the Detroit Red Wings. Surely a sports-loving youngster or two in Nevada will pick up a stick in the coming years after being inspired by attending a game there and develop into an NHL prospect.

“If you’re good enough,” Zucker said, “they’re going to see you in some capacity.”

AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo and AP Sports Writer Stephen Whyno in Washington contributed to this report.