He first had to learn a new position, playing on the wing on a line centered by Evgeni Malkin. That didn't last and he was moved back to his more familiar third-line center role.
But wherever he played, not much changed -- through his first 11 games, he had just 3 assists and a minus-1 rating.
But an empty-net goal -- set up by Malkin -- Nov. 1 got him started. He had another goal two games later against the Islanders, but remained a far-below-the-fold storyline.
"He's always in the shadow, but he's a good player -- maybe underrated," said Red Wings forward Marian Hossa.
Hossa, in fact, was the headline player going into Tuesday's matchup. Not only was it the first meeting between the Red Wings and Penguins since last spring's Stanley Cup Final, it was Hossa's first game against his former Pittsburgh teammates. Hossa, acquired by the Penguins for the playoffs, signed with the Wings over the summer, saying Detroit gave him the best shot at winning a Stanley Cup.
The game more than lived up to its much-hyped billing, but it was Staal who was the star of the night, scoring a third-period hat trick and assisting on Ruslan Fedotenko's overtime goal in the Penguins' riveting 7-6 come-from-behind OT victory.
"It was a great game," Staal said. "Again, we knew they were a great team, and so are we. We came out with the effort that we wanted, and the two points that we wanted as well."
The Red Wings looked like they would cruise to a ho-hum victory when Henrik Zetterberg scored a power-play goal off a give-and-go with Jiri Hudler 5:03 into the third period.
Trailing by three goals with less than 15 minutes to play -- the Penguins had the Wings right where they wanted them.
"We can come back from anything," Staal said. "We knew that this was a great team, and we didn't come out strong enough. But this team's got heart, and we battled back."
The numbers back Staal up. Tuesday's game was the Penguins' League-high fourth win when trailing after two periods. In fact, at 4-3, they're the only team in the League with a winning record when behind going into the final 20 minutes.
Evgeni Malkin scored a power-play goal to make it 5-3, and then Staal backhanded a nifty pass from Matt Cooke above a sprawling Chris Osgood to get the Pens back within a goal.
Two minutes later, Jiri Hudler blasted a slap shot past Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to restore a two-goal lead, 6-4, and seemingly stem the Pens' rushing tide.
"I thought it was going to be over when Hudler scored," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "Then we self-destructed."
Staal helped push the switch, when he pounced on a Kris Letang rebound in the slot and scored to make it 6-5 with 4:09 left, and then forced overtime when he whacked at a rebound and knocked it off the Wings' Nicklas Lidstrom and into the net with 23.4 seconds left.
Staal saved his best work of the night in overtime, when he stripped Pavel Datsyuk of the puck and then fed Fedotenko for a one-timer past Osgood.
"You can't step up much more than that," Pens captain Sidney Crosby said of Staal.
Hossa became little more than a sidebar in the game. He had a pair of assists, but was on the ice for Staal's first goal and the overtime score.
There was no animosity in the matchup, as Hossa met up with a number of his former teammates for dinner Monday.
"There are no hard feelings from this dressing room," said Staal.
Hossa said he tried not to put too much emphasis on facing the Pens, saying, "After the puck dropped for the first faceoff, I didn't even think about it. I just tried to focus on my game."
Then 1:09 into the third, Johan Franzen, back after missing five games with a sprained left knee, scored the Wings' second straight power-play goal. Maxime Talbot answered to get the Pens back within one at 3-2, but Datsyuk's slap shot with 1:58 left in the second put the Wings up 4-2.
Zetterberg's goal early in the third was the Wings' third extra-man goal of the game, and Pens coach Michel Therrien said his team's special teams play nearly cost them the contest.
"Our special teams were not too good," Therrien said. "We took some penalties, and they made us pay."
Staal, though, exacted a far higher price on the Wings.
"It's only one step," he said. "As long as I keep working the way I have been, I'm sure the puck will keep going in."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.