When the NHL season began, Eric Staal’s name was a longshot for the MVP award.
But times have definitely changed.
As his Minnesota Wild (38-22-7) get ready to visit the Vancouver Canucks (25-33-9) on Friday, Staal, 33, is enjoying a career renaissance. He ranks among the league’s top scorers with 36 goals, and his name is being bandied about in MVP discussions.
“Start calling him (King) Midas from now on,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau told reporters. “Everything he touches, it turns to gold. I hope (Staal’s hot streak) doesn’t end.”
Since Feb. 1, Staal has recorded 16 goals in 17 games. On Tuesday, after scoring twice in a 6-2 victory over his former Carolina squad, he might have cost Ron Francis his job as the Hurricanes’ general manager. On Wednesday, new Carolina owner Tom Dundon kicked Francis, who traded Staal away, into the newly created president of hockey operations role.
The move to the New York Rangers seemed prudent at the time, but Staal was dispatched from Broadway after producing only three goals and three assists in 20 games with the Blueshirts in 2015-16.
Now, Staal, who signed with Minnesota as a free agent two summers ago, is in contention for the Rocket Richard Trophy, which goes to the player who scores the most goals each season.
“I don’t think anybody would’ve thought he’d have 36 goals at this stage of the game,” Boudreau told reporters. “I remember when we signed him, when we were talking in the room, and thinking: If he could give us 50 to 60 points we would think it was a great signing.”
Staal is competing for top goal-scoring honors against the likes of Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine, and Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin. But the Wild center downplayed his chances of finishing on top of the scoring heap.
“Those guys can score a lot and shoot it really well,” Staal told reporters. “I’ve got a lot of work to do if I want to catch or be around those guys. I’m just going to keep playing. I don’t like my chances with those guys shooting, to be completely honest.”
But Staal is making an honest playoff contender out of the Wild. Minnesota is 7-2-0 in its past games, has won its last two in a row, and sits in third place in the Central Division.
Of course, the Canucks, who are destined to miss the playoffs by a wide margin, wish they could be as fortunate. Vancouver has beaten some of the NHL’s best teams, but also lost embarrassingly to the worst. The latest example of the inconsistency came Wednesday as Vancouver dropped a 2-1 decision to Arizona by giving up the winning goal in the final minute.
But the close score was misleading.
Playing without their injured top scorer and rookie sensation Brock Boeser of Burnsville, the Canucks were outshot 34-17 — and the outcome would have been more lopsided if the Coyotes had not hit the post three times. Canucks captain Henrik Sedin was still rankled by the poor showing a day later.
“I can promise we’ll be a different team (Friday) night — that’s for sure,” Sedin told reporters after practice. “If we’re not, then we really have to look ourselves in the mirror.”
Sedin added that the Canucks “can’t show up for half a game.” The game will be part of Vancouver’s ongoing audition for 2018-19.
Jussi Jokinen, who is playing for his fourth team this season after being acquired from Columbus at the trade deadline, helped his cause by scoring his first goal as a Canuck on Wednesday. But Jokinen, who has also toiled for Edmonton and Los Angeles this season, is still expecting a better effort from himself after the loss to Arizona.
“It’s really important — I’m playing for my job next year,” Jokinen told reporters.
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