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Eric Staal’s rebound season makes expansion draft protection that much harder

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NHL: Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

What can one really say about Eric Staal and his 2016-17 NHL campaign? We entered the season with a lot of question marks surrounding his game, and Staal played his role to spoil all the doubters who said he was all but finished in the NHL. With dwindling point totals in the 2015-16 season, the evidence was there that the age of Eric Staal was finally starting to show.

Of course, it could have all been a very clever ruse on the part of Staal. An easy way out of Carolina which would lead him to the Minnesota Wild after a brief stop with the New York Rangers late in 2015-16.

It's no secret that what Staal brought to the table here in Minnesota went well beyond the 12 NHL seasons under his belt. He set the table for lineup changes that not only helped him restore his game, but helped Mikael Granlund explode into existence, solidified a line around captain Mikko Koivu that was nearly untouchable all season, and allowed for plenty of tinkering with the depth lines on the bench as well.

Staal played in all 82 regular season games for the Wild this season, as well as all 5 playoff games. While in the playoffs he was held to just a single assist on the score card, the same can be said for many on the Wild who faced the mighty Jake Allen of the St. Louis Blues in the first round. During the regular season grind however, Staal was the lead horse for the Wild in goal scoring with 28 including team leading 8 game-winners, and second on the team in total points with 65 after you tack on his 37 assists.

One could argue the acquisition of Eric Staal was just as important (and far less costly) as when the Wild acquired Zach Parise and Ryan Suter one beautiful summer day back in 2012. With how his addition started a ripple effect throughout the lineup and led to several young players having career seasons it feels like Minnesota was not only a great fit for Staal, but just a savvy pickup by Chuck Fletcher last summer as well.

Staal wasn't brought in to lead the team in scoring. He was brought in to help Bruce Boudreau with center depth and provide the coach with options on how to deploy the lines. Staal's use found him often on the breakaway during the season. A bit of a running joke became how he had what seemed like unlimited chances on the breakaway, but he couldn't convert on seemingly any of them. Could you imagine where his goal totals would have landed him? Hurricanes fans know exactly what we’re talking about.

While playing the 'what-if' game can be fun, what is not fun was how Eric Staal's season came to a crashing halt. In game 5 against the Blues, Staal took a very awkward and scary head-first tumble into the boards behind Jake Allen. Staal would be helped off the ice and taken to Regions Hospital in St. Paul for observation. He would later be released from the hospital, a concussion diagnosis in hand and a whole off season to recover.

All-in-all, the 3-year contract worth $10.5 million Staal agreed to in coming to Minnesota feels like a great team deal. Yet with the expansion draft fast approaching there will be a tough decision to be made in regards of who the team will be able to protect among the forwards. Staal's name has definitely been floated around as one that might land on the unprotected market for the Vegas Golden Knights, and what a get for the fledgling team he would be.

For what it's worth, I believe Staal will ultimately be protected in the upcoming expansion draft. While the argument can be made about his age leaving his most productive days behind him, it's tough to leave a guy like Staal exposed. He does so much for this lineup without even stepping foot on the ice. Despite being a little slower, he's still getting loose on breakaways, he's still able to battle along the walls, and he's still winning close to 50% of his draws, not to mention his point production this past season leaving little doubt Staal can still produce at a NHL level. It would be a much taller order to fill the void he would leave than to slot in another defensemen or open a forward roster spot for one of the kids waiting in the wings.