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Wild sign two forwards from free-agent market

ST. PAUL -- On a day several big contracts were handed out around the NHL, the Wild avoided the priciest options on the free-agent market Friday, electing to fill their biggest needs — size and a center — with a pair of affordable forwards.

The Wild signed center Eric Staal to a three-year contract and Chris Stewart, who had a brief stint with the Wild in 2015, to a two-year deal.

They watched two high-priced Minnesotans go elsewhere — Kyle Okposo to the Buffalo Sabres on a seven-year deal and David Backes to the Boston Bruins on a five-year contract — and chose this time to avoid signing marquee free agents to big contracts.

“There were some good hockey players — and some good hockey players who were handsomely rewarded today,” Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said. “Free agency is the biggest misnomer in sports; there’s certainly nothing free about it. I think a day like today is a pretty good opportunity to overpay players. And I like to think we avoided that.”

Staal is a 6-foot-4, 205-pound center who was once a superstar with the Carolina Hurricanes, where he won a Stanley Cup and notched five seasons of at least 30 goals.

He turns 32 in October and isn’t the player he was a decade ago, but Staal addresses a need for the Wild at center.

Last season, Staal had 13 goals and 26 assists in 83 games, 63 with the Hurricanes and 20 with the New York Rangers. His new contract will pay him $3.5 million per season.

“For me, in my mind, there were a lot of circumstances that go along with it as to why things went the way they did,” Staal said of his statistics last season. “But I believe I’m still a very good player. I’ve scored a lot of goals in the league and still feel I will be a contributor and can be a contributor in a good team’s top-6 (forwards).”

For years as foes in what used to be the Southeast Division, Staal faced a Bruce Boudreau-coached Washington Capitals team. Those matchups have Boudreau, the Wild’s new coach, excited about coaching Staal.

“When he was on top of his game, Carolina beat us all the time,” Boudreau said. “When I talked to him on Wednesday night, I thought he was so excited about the opportunity. It didn’t have much to do with money or any of that. He wanted the opportunity to be the Eric Staal that he was in the past. And I told him he would definitely get that chance here.”

Stewart was acquired by the Wild at the trade deadline in 2015, finishing with three goals and eight assists in 20 games. After that season, the Wild didn’t have the cap space to sign Stewart, and he landed with the Anaheim Ducks, where he was coached by Boudreau.

This week, Boudreau called Stewart and pitched to him the idea of playing again for the Wild.

“He’s a really good head coach, and he’s hungry and wants to win now, too,” Stewart said. “We talked for a couple minutes and as soon as I got off the phone with him, I sort of knew in my heart that’s where I wanted to be.”

Stewart’s two-year contract is worth $2.3 million.

In 56 games with the Ducks last season, Stewart had eight goals, 12 assists and 73 penalty minutes.

“The one thing I was impressed with him last year was how good of a team guy he was,” Boudreau said. “And he stood up for everybody. Anybody that was picked on, he would go right up to them and he knew how to handle it for us. He can play.”

Stewart, 28, who is 6 feet 2, 225 pounds, likely will start on the Wild’s fourth line.

“I’m confident in my abilities to play this game,” he said. “I’ve had some injuries in the past couple years, but I am healthy now and if I get a chance to play some minutes, I can produce. At the end of the day, I’m a team-first player and I’m going to do whatever is asked of me, whether that’s sliding up or down the lineup or sticking up for my teammates.”

Fletcher likes the physicality that Stewart brings, noting that during his short stint with the Wild in 2015, Fletcher felt the Wild played a more confident game.

“I’m a big fan of him personally,” Fletcher said. “I thought he fit well with our team and brought very good chemistry. … He gives you a lot of flexibility, and that size is important. I know that when we went on the road when he was here, we were a much more confident team.”

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