In praise of Eric Staal

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When Minnesota addressed its need for a top-flight center this summer by signing Eric Staal, there was some consternation.

Staal, 32, was 10 years removed from his career-best 45-goal, 100-point campaign in 2006 — the same year he helped Carolina its first and only Stanley Cup.

What’s more, he was coming off a rough stint with the Rangers, in which he had just three goals in 20 regular-season games and went pointless in a brief first-round playoff ouster to Pittsburgh.

As a result, the Wild raised plenty of eyebrows when they said they needed Staal to be “the Eric Staal that he was in the past.”

Some wondered if it was possible. Some said it wasn’t.

So kudos are in order for what he’s done this year.

Staal has delivered top-six production thus far — impressive, given he’s on a relatively team-friendly deal ($3.5M average annual cap hit) — and is averaging 19:23 TOI per night, his highest since the ’13-14 campaign. He’s on pace for 18 goals and 58 points and has provided the Wild with a good one-two punch in the faceoff circles along with Mikko Koivu (the pair have combined to win 592 of 1,102 draws, a winning percentage of 54.)

“He’s been a great leader, a great captain,” Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau told the Star-Tribune after Sunday’s win over St. Louis, in which Staal scored career point No. 800. “Now he’s doing a great job for us.”

Staal’s a big reason why Minnesota’s streaking at the moment. The club has won four straight and, heading into tonight’s action, sits six points back of Chicago for top spot in the Central Division — but with three games in hand on the ‘Hawks.

Of course, if we’re going to praise Staal’s contributions, it’s only right to praise the guy that brought him in.

Signing Staal was a calculated risk by Wild GM Chuck Fletcher. Many saw the move as the old getting older. What’s more, Fletcher could’ve gone harder after “flashier” 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.

Instead the Wild chose the less splashy, more conservative path. Through the first two months of the season, it’s paid off nicely.