Eric Staal’s blast to reach the 1,000-point plateau? In a word: emphatic.
Stationed on the right-wing during a Minnesota Wild power play, the veteran center opened up his stance to unleash a one-timer, received a perfect table-setting pass from defenseman Ryan Suter and Staal proceeded to put every ounce of power he had into a blast that found nothing but net. The goal, his 12th of the season and a tally that put him only slightly off a 30-goal pace for the campaign, was the 429th of his career, fourth in his past three games and made the 35-year-old the NHL’s latest millennium man. That he did so with some style was the exclamation point on an outstanding achievement.
Of course, that he has reached the 1,000-point milestone puts Staal in some rare company. Though it may seem that the mark has been reached with increased frequency in recent years, Staal is only the 89th player in league history to score as many points and became the sixth active player to reach the plateau, a number that is likely to grow to seven as Patrick Kane, who is 22 points shy, seems keen on reaching the milestone by season’s end.
But that Staal has scored his 1,000th point, not to mention the company he’s keeping as it pertains to active 1,000-point scorers, is enough to perhaps ask an important question: is Staal one of the most underrated players of his generation?
Consider for a second those Staal trails on the list of active scorers. Topping the list is Joe Thornton. Some 250 or so points behind Thornton sits the inextricably linked duo of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. Next is Patrick Marleau and – technically, though he hasn’t suited up for an NHL game in two-plus seasons – Marian Hossa. The only other player separating Staal from the top of the heap is Evgeni Malkin. That’s it. That’s the list. And, frankly, to hear Staal mentioned among that cadre of players is somewhat surprising. But maybe that’s because he’s so often been overlooked as one of the most consistently productive players of this era.
While Staal has never won a scoring title – his 100-point campaign in 2005-06 was his high-water mark, but that was 25 points off the scoring lead in the first season of the post-lockout era – it should be noted that he’s a 12-time 20-goal scorer who is on pace to reach the mark a 13th time this season. There are only 53 players in league history who can make such a claim, and if Staal can reach the 20-goal plateau once more before he hangs up the skates, he’ll join a list of 14-time 20-goal scorers that currently includes only 35 players in league history. Staal also has eight seasons of 70 points or more, a list that’s 68 players deep as of this writing. He’s on pace to come close to a ninth, which would put him among the 50 players in league history to do so.
Undoubtedly, part of what has helped Staal piece together such seasons and climb the scoring ladder is that he’s remained healthy for the majority of his career. Not once has he missed more than a dozen games in a single season. Add to it his longevity, as this is now his 16th season in the league, and he’s had ample time to compile points. Case in point, there are only five active players who’ve skated in more NHL contests, a list that includes Marleau, Thornton, Hossa, Zdeno Chara and Jay Bouwmeester. At 1,208 games, Staal is also one of only 112 players in league history to suit up in as many contests.
It’s true, then, that when you weigh Staal’s longevity with his production that his scoring acumen is slightly less impressive. To wit, among the 1,000-point players, Staal doesn’t find himself among the Crosbys and Ovechkins, who are better than point-per-game players, or even at a level that’s quite equal with Hossa, who scored at .87 points per game across his 1,300-game career. Instead, Staal’s .83 points per game puts him alongside the likes of Doug Weight and Patrik Elias. Both incredibly productive players and consistent scorers during their primes, though not exactly the cream of the crop.
But maybe what has really kept Staal out of the spotlight in comparison to the other active scorers who’ve compiled similar point totals throughout his time in the league is that he’s been just that throughout his career: out of the spotlight.
The bulk of Staal’s career and the entirety of his prime was spent with the Carolina Hurricanes. While relevant and competitive now, Carolina was by no means a hockey hotbed during Staal’s best years and the Hurricanes’ failures resulted in Staal playing post-season hockey just twice during his tenure with the organization. After that, Staal made a cameo on Broadway, spending a half-season and one brief playoff run with the New York Rangers. But that was followed by a three-year deal and subsequent two-year extension with Minnesota, and while the Wild are a hot ticket in the region, the State of Hockey is a market that is often overlooked or overshadowed by the New Yorks and Chicagos and the Torontos and Montreals of the league.
When he has played on the biggest stages and under the brightest lights, though, it can’t be said that Staal hasn’t performed. During the 2005-06 season, one of his few trips to the post-season, Staal led the Hurricanes’ offense during their Stanley Cup run with a post-season best 19 assists and 28 points. When he won gold with Team Canada at the 2010 World Championship, his five goals and 10 points each tied for third-most. And when Staal captured gold at the 2010 Olympics, his six points, which were only two shy of the team lead, tied for sixth in Canadian scoring. If you’ve done the mental math on the hardware in his trophy case, too, you’ll note that Staal’s Stanley Cup, World Championship gold and Olympic gold put him in elite company as one of the 29 player members of the Triple Gold Club.
Admittedly, despite his 1,000 points and counting, his jam-packed trophy case and membership in the Triple Gold Club, it is unlikely Staal will end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Never has he won an individual award – a fourth-place Hart Trophy finish in 2005-06 is the closest he’s come – and he has but one end-of-season all-star team nod, that as a second-teamer during his 100-point season. But those who watched him during his best years in Carolina and have witnessed his late-career resurgence in Minnesota will always hold him in high regard and as a player who likely should have received greater recognition for what he’s been able to accomplish.