has always been revered for excelling in a defensive shutdown role.
There’s no question he continues to do that for the Penguins, as the 23-year-old center is usually assigned to cover opposing teams’ top players and is one of the best penalty killers on a unit that’s ranked third in the league.
But what Staal is doing this year better than he ever has before is understanding how to use his best assets to create more offensive opportunities for himself.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound center skates incredibly well for a big man, and he’s pairing that with his impressive physical strength to muscle past defenders and get the puck to – and in – the net.
“In terms of his offensive ability, I think this year better than any, he’s understood exactly how big and strong he is skating-wise that has led to better offensive opportunities for him,” head coach Dan Bylsma said.
“He’s not a dangle in front of you, around you and through you type of player. But when he uses his speed and strength, he can overpower people. He can overpower defenders and they can’t get the puck off him. He’s done that, I think, significantly better than he has in the past.”
Simply put, Staal is dominating games with that lethal combination that makes him so hard to play against on both ends of the ice.
“He’s like (Evgeni Malkin
) healthy, he’s like (Sidney Crosby
) healthy, he’s like any of our top players healthy,” linemate Pascal Dupuis
said. “They’ll dominate the game, and that’s what Jordan is doing right now."
Last season was a tough one for Staal, who missed 39 straight games with a foot infection (12) and a broken hand (27) – breaking his franchise-record ironman streak of 358 consecutive games played (including playoffs) that started his rookie year. Though he returned in the second half and played well, he felt like he wasn’t quite where he wanted to be strength-wise and never fully reached that point.
But as we’ve seen with Malkin, a long offseason is a clean slate for players who have dealt with tough injuries the previous season. It certainly was for Staal, who had time to work his way back to peak form after a tough year.
“I think this summer was great,” he said. “My body was feeling good after the all the injuries and stuff like that. Throughout the summer, I worked pretty hard and got the body where I wanted it to be. Just coming into this year, I felt really confident in my speed and just all of those things kind of clicked.”
Though Staal was unfortunate enough to suffer a knee injury in a collision with former teammate Mike Rupp on Jan. 6, he returned to the lineup on Feb. 11 vs. Winnipeg and stepped right back in.
He’s scored four goals (one shorthanded) and six points in the six games since his return. Overall, Staal’s 19 goals rank third on the team and he’s averaging 0.48 goals-per-game this season – the highest average of his six-year career. With his next goal, Staal will hit the 20-goal mark for the fourth time in six seasons.
His numbers are also a result of the way he’s able to transition out of the defensive zone.
“He’s really easy to play with,” Dupuis said. “You know when you play with Jordan that you won’t spend much time in your zone because he’s obviously one of the best to break plays or to read plays or to win battles to get out of your zone.”
Once he’s able to get the puck out of his own end, Staal will use his body to create a lane to the net.
“You see him hang onto the puck longer. You see him go wide and use his speed, size and strength to overpower people and has gotten to the net that way,” Bylsma said. “Offensive zone wise, he hangs onto the puck using his body to keep possession, moves into offensive areas and scores goals and adds offense I don’t think we’ve even seen him come close to in the past. I think that’s something he’s realized and then used to his advantage for offensive situations.”
And it’s been a blast to watch.
“He’s healthy. He’s feeling good, he’s feeling strong,” Dupuis said. “He’s got that gear, that willingness to go to the net, to drive defensemen and to hold onto the puck. He’s fun to play with.”