THUNDER BAY – Las Vegas was never really in Eric Staal’s hockey equation.
It’s a fun place to visit, and the Vegas Golden Knights look like they’ve put together a pretty decent first-year squad through the expansion process, but Staal is quite happy to serve the second and third years of the contract he signed last summer playing for the Minnesota Wild.
Staal, 32, was coming off a rebound season that saw him score 28 goals and 65 points, the latter the most he’d produced since the 2011-12 campaign.
But the Wild, who bowed out in the opening round of the playoffs after battling the Chicago Blackhawks for the NHL’s Central Division lead all season long, left Staal unprotected when the expansion lists were released in June.
Instead they chose to not expose forwards Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker, making a deal with the Golden Knights not to touch either Staal or defenceman Matt Dumba.
It was never a concern, Staal said.
“I had talked to our general manager before and he laid out his plan of what he was doing and he was in frequent conversations with (Vegas GM George) McPhee to make sure there were a couple of guys from our team that he didn’t take,” Staal said.
“He guaranteed me 110 per cent I’d be back in Minny for this coming season. I was fine with however he had to make a deal to make it happen.”
For a frightening few moments in Game 5 of their first-round loss against the Blues, Minnesota management weren’t sure if Staal would ever find his way back to the ice. The Thunder Bay-born forward crashed head first into the boards, after tripping on St. Louis goaltender Jake Allen’s skates.
He sustained a concussion and says he’s since recovered, but the hockey world collectively gasped at the collision until they knew Staal was going to be OK.
“It was a little tough for the first couple of days, but obviously things could have been a lot worse. I was fortunate with one, being able to skate off the ice, and two, all the tests I went through were negative. It was a slow process the first couple of days, a lot sleeping and a lot of lying around. I had to get my neck worked on for a little bit, but all in all, I feel very lucky,” Staal said.
“It was a tough ending to the season, not only for me personally, but for my team. I’m glad that’s behind me and I can train the way I normally would this summer.”
It also means he’ll have an opportunity to build on a return to form for the former No. 2 overall draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes.
After seeing his production slide in his final season in Carolina and bottom out in a 20-game stint with the New York Rangers, Staal said he feels a little vindicated by what he accomplished in Year 1 with the Wild.
“I’d be lying if I told you that it didn’t feel good,” Staal said. “People talk a lot and for me, with how long it had been, and going from Carolina to New York and how that finished, there was definitely some things there I wanted to prove to myself and to others.
“I felt I had a good season. I had a year that was important to our group and our team and we did well.”
Staal has 353 goals and 846 points in 1,011 career NHL games.