Talk about big skates to fill.
Jared Staal barely is a month into his sophomore season in the Ontario Hockey League with the Sudbury Wolves and he already is one of the most talked about prospects in the hockey world.
After a modest rookie season with limited ice time, Staal is off to a good start this year. He isn’t rated as high as other top prospects, like Steven Stamkos of the Sarnia Sting or Drew Doughty of the Guelph Storm, but as the youngest of four siblings that all played in the OHL, the spotlight on Staal shines brightly.
His three older brothers were all first-round NHL draft picks and are plying their trade in the NHL this season. Oldest brother Eric, 22, is a star with the Carolina Hurricanes and won the Stanley Cup two years ago. Marc, 20, is a rookie defenseman with the New York Rangers, while Jordan, 19, is a sophomore with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Family snapshots of the boys playing shinny on their homemade rink at the sod farm in Thunder Bay, Ontario, already have become a piece of Canadian heritage. Unfortunately, none of that helps Jared as he tries to find his own way to the big leagues.
“It’s been great, but I’m not them and I can’t be them,” said the 17-year-old Staal, who is eligible for the 2008 Entry Draft this June in Ottawa. “I have to make my own path and be my own player. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m just working as hard as I can every day and hopefully I can make my own mark.”
Staal scored two goals and picked up an assist in a limited role with the Wolves last season. He added a postseason goal – an overtime marker in a semifinal win against the Belleville Bulls – and was eager to make a bigger contribution this year.
Nine of his teammates – including older brother Marc – graduated from the Wolves after their appearance in the OHL finals last spring, and Jared already is playing a bigger role on Sudbury’s younger squad this season.
“I give Jared a lot of credit because he really paid a price this summer to train hard and to get really strong,” said Wolves coach Mike Foligno. “You can only get so much stronger than the year before in a matter of three months, but I give him credit. He’s put on 12 pounds of solid muscle. He’s got more stamina. It’s now a matter of utilizing that bigger body and transforming it into your game.”
The 6-foot-3, 195-pound right winger already has eclipsed his modest rookie scoring totals from last year with a pair of goals and seven points in the first nine games of the season. He has worked his way onto the Wolves’ top line with over-ager Kevin Baker and Slovak winger Patrik Lusnak.
“Last year we had a great team with a lot of veteran players on forward and defense,” Staal said. “A lot of those guys graduated and our younger guys have stepped in. I’ve been given an opportunity this year and I’m trying to make the most of it. In the summer I just tried to work as hard as I could to get stronger and get better and I think it’s paid off so far. Hopefully I can continue to get better.”
On and off the ice, the youngest Staal most resembles Marc, who won the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award as MVP of the OHL playoffs last spring. While Jared has yet to show the flashy skills of Eric or Jordan, he worked hard to build strength in the summer and likes to use his power-forward body to make plays in the corners and in front of the net.
“I think they all have a little bit in common – a certain style that they have,” Foligno said of the four brothers. “Jared is a loose, fun kind of guy. He loves to keep it light, but he’s also very intent on helping the team win. If there is a key play on the ice, he wants to be out there for it. He’s a smart player. He sees the ice very well. I think that vision is starting to show now.”
Foligno understands how family ties can lead to increased expectations. After a four-year career with his hometown Wolves, Foligno played more than 1,000 NHL games with the Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers. His sons – Nick, a rookie with the Ottawa Senators, and Marcus, a rookie with the Wolves – have been forced to skate in the shadow of their famous father.
The elder Foligno has witnessed the daily demands Staal faces because of his family.
“You’re not just talking about three brothers; you’re talking about three elite players in the league,” said Foligno, who scored 65 goals and 150 points and was named league MVP in his final junior season with the Wolves, in 1978-79. “To compare him to those guys right now is obviously not fair.”
Like a lot of his peers, the biggest knock against Staal has been his skating. He knows how coveted speed is in today’s game – especially for a big man – and he is working hard to improve that part of his game.
“You can never be too fast,” said Staal, who included track sprints in his off-season workout regimen. “I am just trying to get quicker, for sure. Speed is everything. I’m just trying to be strong on the puck and not get knocked off of it and be able to hold people off the puck - just to be strong out there.”
He enjoys the profile that being part of his famous family brings, but also understands the added scrutiny he faces after having three brothers that were first-round NHL draft picks. He’s anxious to put together a solid season, but says the draft is the furthest thing from his mind.
“If I’m worrying about the draft I don’t think I’m worrying about the right things, especially right now,” Staal said. “I’m trying to work as hard as I can and help the team get on track. If I just work hard and play hard, I will get recognized and, hopefully, things will go well with the draft. It’s not something I’m worried about right now. I’ll worry about it when that day comes.”
There is no question there is pressure on Staal to follow his brothers into the NHL, but he also has the best built-in support system in the hockey world. His parents have been through the NHL draft three times and his brothers always are a phone call away.
“I’m probably the luckiest kid growing up in hockey right now,” Staal said. “I’ve got three older brothers that have all proven themselves so far. They’ve helped me a lot with a lot of advice. They’ve been through it and they know what they are talking about. I try to soak in as much as I can from them.”