A year ago, the entire Pittsburgh Penguins
’ brain trust debated over whether Jordan Staal
should stay in the Steel City beyond the first 10 games of the NHL regular season, or be returned to his junior team in Peterborough, Ontario.
The Pens threw caution to the wind and Staal spent the next six months proving why he belonged with the big boys, scoring 29 goals while becoming the youngest player in NHL history to lead the League in shorthanded goals (seven).
This season, at the ripe-old age of 19 years and one month, Staal has been promoted to the Penguins’ top line, alongside 20-year-old Sidney Crosby and 30-year-old newcomer Petr Sykora.
Shuffling from center to left wing is nothing new for Staal, who spent much of last season jumping in and out of the faceoff circle.
“It's pretty easy to play left wing with two players like that,” said Staal, who spent time on a line with Evgeni Malkin last season. "I think most players are kind of nervous (playing alongside Crosby). Obviously, he's going to find you. It's just a matter of finding openings."
Crosby said he expects Staal to crash the net and find some room in the slot for deflections, while Sykora fires away from the faceoff dots. Sykora, 30, is in his 12th NHL season. In other words, Staal was seven and Crosby was eight when Sykora broke into the NHL with the New Jersey Devils in 1995.
"I've been in the League for a while, and I try to get used to new players as soon as possible," said Sykora, who signed with the Penguins in July. "It's a good fit for us."
At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, Staal provides some much-needed muscle to the Penguins’ top line. Should he remain on the ice long enough with “Kid Sid,” he could sprint past older brother Eric in this year’s NHL scoring race.
Last season, Jordan Staal fell one goal short of matching his older brother, Eric, who netted 30 goals for the Carolina Hurricanes. When the two skated into the faceoff circle for their first NHL draw against each other, 23-year-old Eric bet 18-year-old Jordan a Gatorade that he’d win the draw. He did, and Jordan had to walk the sports drink into the opposing dressing room after the game.
Marc Staal, a 20-year-old defenseman with the Rangers, joined his two brothers in the NHL by cracking the New York lineup last month, leaving 17-year-old Jared as the only Staal brother not in the NHL. Jared is eligible for the 2008 Entry Draft and although he is not considered as skilled as his older brothers, his youth coach recently pointed out that no NHL team would want to be remembered as the organization that passed over a fourth Staal.
Ian Swalucynski coached all four Staals for the 12- and 13-year-old Thunder Bay (Ontario) Kings and believes Jordan carries the most potential.
“I think Jordan is the best one of them all,” Swalucysnki said. “He’s just too big and too skilled. The same moves that worked when he was 12 and 13 are now working against big-time players. Just wait until he’s 23.”
The Penguins didn’t have to wait that long to see Staal make an impact. As a rookie last season, he led the NHL with a .221 shooting percentage and topped the Penguins with a plus-16 rating. Despite his surprising success last season, Staal was reminded last week just how fleeting NHL glory can be. Penguins’ defensive prospect Kris Letang began the season with hopes of making the Penguins roster, but was assigned to the American Hockey League’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
"It's a tough spot trying to make this team, especially with the players we have right now," Staal said. "As for me, I still have to keep playing like (I did last season); otherwise, I could get sent down, too."
Around the Atlantic -- In other Penguins news, veterans Mark Recchi, 39, Sergei Gonchar, 33, and Gary Roberts, 41, will aid newly named captain Sidney Crosby as alternates. Recchi will wear the “A” full-time, while Gonchar and Roberts alternate, with Gonchar wearing the “A” at home and Roberts sporting it on the road. Crosby is the youngest captain in the NHL. … Staal’s move from center to left wing means more ice time for center Erik Christensen, who could have a breakout season as a third-line center. … There are reports that the Islanders’ decision to place defenseman Freddy Meyer on waivers will pave the way for the team to sign free-agent defenseman Bryan Berard. … By sending defenseman Denis Gauthier to the AHL’s Philadelphia Phantoms, the Flyers created enough salary space to sign free agent forwards Jim Dowd and Jesse Boulerice to one-year deals, while also leaving room for Steve Downie on the roster so that he can begin serving his 20-game suspension for a hit to the head on Ottawa’s Dean McAmmond. … Rangers forward Sean Avery left Saturday’s game against the Senators with a shoulder injury early in the first period after taking a hard hit from Sens forward and fellow pest Chris Neil. Avery did not return to the game and is expected to miss several weeks. … The Devils picked up their first win under new coach Brent Sutter Saturday in Florida as they continue on their season-opening nine-game road trip. The extended trip was scheduled to allow time for construction on the team's new Prudential Center in Newark. The Devils now have won 11 of their last 13 visits to Sunrise, Fla.