Eric Staal found himself in a rut. It was spring, a familiar time of rest and recuperation for a man that had gritted through 12 years of NHL hockey. However, last off-season seemed to mark a peculiar station in his career.
For so long, Staal had routine in his life. At 19, in 2003, he made his debut with the Carolina Hurricanes, and three years later carried the franchise to its first Stanley Cup following a spectacular 100-point campaign. And after that year he had, like he would each season, retired to a few months of recovery and training, knowing he would be right back in Raleigh to compete the next fall.
How things had changed. Carolina, the team that had drafted him second overall as a teenager, was all Staal had ever known. It was where he grew into a man, where he started a family and where he played with his own. Brother Jordan joined the team in 2012, the same year the youngest Staal brother, Jared, played with the Hurricanes for what remain his only two games in the NHL.
But Carolina had also come to represent something else for Staal, a high-priced talent on a team going nowhere. The Hurricanes hadn’t made the playoffs since 2008-09, or even eclipsed 40 wins since that same year. And by last season, they were an organization desperate for change. Staal, his leadership, captaincy and expiring $9.5 million salary were the first to go.
“It was such a tough time for him,” Jordan said. “He’s a leader, and he wanted so much more.”
At last season’s trade deadline, after many talks with GM Ron Francis about the direction of the team, Staal agreed to be moved to New York to suit up for the Rangers alongside (you guessed it) another Staal brother, Marc. A playoff push fizzled quickly in the Big Apple, and suddenly Staal, then 31, was set to become a true free agent for the first time in his career. Once heralded, he had become a player with little but losing seasons and declining statistics to point to.
The circumstances ate at him. Here was a player, a one-time star, suffering from the curse of his early success. Staal had won that Cup at such a young age, became a regular at the All-Star Game since making his debut in 2007, and had international success, winning the World Championship in 2007 and an Olympic gold medal in 2010.
“They have probably one of the best power forwards in the league in Staal,” gushed future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur ahead of the Devils’ 2009 playoff series with the Hurricanes. Staal’s legacy was writing itself.
But he achieved it all so soon, triumph coming with such apparent ease that when his career trajectory didn’t continue skyrocketing upward it became a trying time. The losing, the forgotten seasons in Carolina, the growing whispers that he was no longer the player he once was, weighed on Staal, who often brought the misery of his flagging hockey fate home from the rink with him. It all crested last off-season, when he was considered merely an ex-star without a team to call his own.
“It took me a good month to really be excited and energized to get back in the gym,” Staal said. “I really took time away.”
New opportunity arrived July 1, when during the opening hours of free agency the Minnesota Wild signed him to a three-year, $10.5 million deal, a fraction of the money he had earned in seasons past. No matter for Staal, who in his mind had plenty to prove and still had the skills to do so. July 1: call it Day 1 on the Eric Staal Redemption Tour.
The end in Carolina was easy to spot but impossible to overlook. For Jordan, whose big brother was such a likely candidate to be shipped from the sinking Hurricanes, forecasting a deal became a matter of mathematics. “You try not to think about it, because it can affect how you play,” he said. “But the more we won, the better chance we make the playoffs, the better chance he sticks around. That’s how I thought.”
Last season, as Carolina scuffled in the Eastern Conference, it was difficult for the brothers and teammates to escape the reality that Eric was likely to be on the move. What followed was a unique circumnavigation of the NHL: Staal left a losing team playing with one brother, arrived at a winning team to play with another and by the post-season’s end had no team, nor any new relatives left to suit up with.
He allowed himself 30 days after the Rangers’ playoff ouster to reset, to get away from the sport entirely, before he was ready to return to the work needed to revitalize his career. For the first time, he entered free agency, which was a humbling process for a player with five 30-goal seasons on his resume.
Not nearly as many teams came calling for Staal’s services as he might have hoped, and what teams did make inquiries would toss about salary figures they never came close to officially offering once advanced contract talks began. Nashville, Boston and St. Louis were serious suitors, but Minnesota courted Staal best. To join the Wild, he agreed to a season-over-season salary cut of $6 million.
Staal began this season hot, with 13 points in his first 15 games, and, whether he’ll admit so explicitly or not, appears to be playing for something larger than a chance at a second Stanley Cup. He has heard for years, as his scoring dipped from 70 points in 2011-12 to 39 in 2015-16, that he is overpaid, that he has underperformed, that he hasn’t carried his weight in the league he so dazzled at the outset of his career.
“Things like, ‘I’m slow, I’m getting old, blah, blah, blah,’ ” Staal said. “Regardless if you don’t want to hear it, you do.”
He isn’t so brash as to hold up his critics as motivation for his redemption tour, but you can rather easily read between the lines of what the usually reserved veteran offers to reveal his true thoughts on the matter. “I’m only 32,” he said. “I’m not at the end of my career. I have a lot of hockey left, I know that.”
Staal has shown it thus far, though he also has taken on a new role in Minnesota. No longer is he counted on to put up 70-plus points for his team, nor be the most outspoken leader on a club with proven vets like Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter already in the dressing room. Within that framework, Staal has the chance to establish himself in this league once more.
“That’s the beauty of our sport,” Jordan said. “You can have some tough spots and some tough runs, but you always have that opportunity to prove yourself all over again.”
Staal’s reclamation is off to a fine start. He has 25 points in 31 games, on pace for 66, and Minnesota looks like a playoff team, having won eight in a row entering Thursday's game against the Canadiens. It is a role he couldn’t have imagined for himself as a young player taking the NHL by storm, hoisting Stanley Cup and All-Star Game MVP trophies, but the transition is no less noteworthy on a career rounding into its next phase.
“I feel like this is kind of a second chapter for me,” he said. “It’s a second part of my career that’s just beginning.”