Reflecting on busy season

Thunder Bay’s Eric Staal addresses the media in Montreal on July 9. Staal played with the Montreal Canadiens on their way to the Stanley Cup final this year. 

Unrestricted free agent Eric Staal isn’t a free agent at all.

Sure, his current professional hockey contract ended at the conclusion of the 2020-21 NHL season as he helped lead the Montreal Canadiens to an improbable run to the Stanley Cup final. The Thunder Bay-born forward can sign anywhere he wants starting on July 28.

But the group that owns Staal’s first signing rights is Team Staal. It’s a squad of five — Eric, his wife Tanya and their sons Parker, Finley and Levi. Dad had been away on one heck of a long business trip, starting with his season’s start with the Buffalo Sabres and subsequent trade to the Habs. It finally ended earlier this month.

“The future right now is to get home and be a dad and a husband. It’s been a little over half a year of being away from them,” Eric Staal said during his season-closing interview with the Montreal media on July 9 — two days after the Canadiens bowed out in five games to the Tampa Bay Lightning. “I’ve never done that ever. It’s exciting to be home with them and decompress.”

Staal’s family will get the first call before his agent come decision time.

“Obviously there’s some decisions to made going forward as a family,” he said. “It’s not just what I want. It’s about what makes sense as a family.”

The long-distance parenting took its toll, and Eric was quick to praise Tanya for keeping everything together.

“I can’t say enough positive things about my support system. My family, my wife, my kids. It was challenging for sure at times,” Staal recalled. “We all had our moments. . . . We really did get through it all together.”

The next contract could be Staal’s last in the NHL. Set to turn 37 in October and approaching his 18th season in the league, Staal endured a trying year with missing his family, playing on a struggling Sabres team and adjusting to new teammates in Montreal all in a pandemic-shortened season.

Staal finished with five goals and eight assists in 53 games. The average of 0.24 points per game was Staal’s lowest since his rookie campaign back in 2003-04.

He did rebound with eight points in 21 playoff games despite battling various injuries, including back and neck ailments.

“I could go on and on what the adversity that I saw firsthand with both teams I was with this season,” Staal said. “For me, I could say I’m proud of how I got up every day, came to the rink and tried to do my job, compete and enjoy the game. That’s what it is.

“Getting with this team (Montreal) and getting here was meaningful. A lot of people close to me were proud how I responded personally over the last six months. I just wish it would have ended in the right result. . . . The medical staff did a phenomenal job of getting me out there. (The injuries) got better as the playoffs went on.”

Staal was one of four Canadiens who had won Stanley Cups in the past (Corey Perry, Jake Allen, Joel Edmundson). Staal and Perry, both Olympic gold medallists, took a leadership role with young core stars such as Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Cole Caufield and Alexander Romanov. Even though it’s not 100 per cent that he’ll return, Staal sees a bright future in Montreal.

“Very bright. Obviously this experience, this run can go a long way. . . . The playing of everybody for each other is what will carry this group and carry this organization moving forward. The culture here is phenomenal.”

However, the edge and hunger shouldn’t disappear and the pressure to return to the final should be on every year, he added. Staal was just 21 years old when he was a member of the 2006 Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes.

And then time moved forward.

“It just doesn’t happen every year. It’s not as easy as you think. When you’re a young guy you think it’s going to happen,” Staal said. “For me, 15 years later to get another chance at another Stanley Cup. That’s how hard it is. That’s how hard this league is.”