The Selke Trophy is presented annually “to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game.”
“It means a lot,” Staal said. “I am excited because it is a great honor just to be named. It’s an accomplishment but I kind of have to put it behind me and focus on (Tuesday’s) game, but it is a pretty special feeling.”
Staal’s “special feeling” is an exclamation point on what might have been the best regular season of the 21-year-old center’s four-year NHL career.
The Thunder Bay, Ontario native hit the 20-goal mark for the third time in four seasons while also tying his career high with 49 points, which ranked fourth on the team. Staal led the Penguins with a career-best plus-19 rating, one of the leading statistics used to rate defensive performance, and ranked third with 41 takeaways.
Staal also saw 3:20 shorthanded minutes of ice time per game, the third-highest total among forwards in the league, while helping the Penguins finish the season with the NHL’s ninth-best penalty killing unit with a success rate of 84.1 percent.
Even with those statistics, Staal said he was still surprised when he found out about his nomination on Tuesday morning.
“I was pretty surprised when I heard but I am really excited,” Staal said. “I wasn’t really expecting anything. I am obviously very proud of what I accomplished throughout the season.”
Staal might have been caught a little off guard by his nomination, but the players who share a locker room with him certainly weren’t.
“I think he is a guy who works hard every night,” Marc-Andre Fleury
said. “He always plays against the other team’s top line along with TK (Tyler Kennedy
) and Cookie (Matt Cooke
). … I just feel safe when he is on the ice. He is great on the PK.”
“I think he is very well-deserving,” captain Sidney Crosby
said. “I think sometimes he gets overlooked because of the guys we have on our team, but his game is so complete. He is a big part of our team so it is nice and well-deserving that he gets recognized like that.”
One of the areas where head coach Dan Bylsma believes Staal has made his biggest improvement is using his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame more to his advantage in all areas of the ice.
“One of the things that Jordan has gotten better at this year, and developed into, is playing as big as he is,” Bylsma said. “He's playing as big as he is in the offensive zone, the defensive zone, the penalty kill. He goes to win battles. He's doing it with a big frame. He's always had a good stick. He's always been good positionally. Now he's going in and separating guys from the puck and skating away. He's doing that on the penalty kill, those puck battles along the wall, getting pucks out.
“You see a big man playing defense physically, knocking you off the puck and then skating away, and adding that to his game. When you go against him time and time again, you get a real sense of how big and strong of a defender he is on the puck, and skating out of there, his good skating ability as well.”
While the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association might have overlooked Staal’s defensive prowess until now, Crosby says it’s an element Staal has brought to the table since making the Penguins as an 18-year-old rookie during the 2006-07 campaign.
“I think a key was he was thrown into so many key situations at such a young age,” Crosby said. “When you get that confidence killing penalties late in games then playing against top lines becomes a habit. That is something he is pretty used to at this point. Not every player is able to have that challenge every night. That says a lot about the way that he plays.”
Staal burst onto the scene that season to set an NHL rookie record with a league-leading seven shorthanded tallies. Included in that total was a performance on Oct. 21, 2006 when Staal became the youngest player in league history to score two shorthanded goals in just his seventh career game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Mellon Arena.
Staal says that he hasn’t done anything differently with game this season and instead believes it was the series-changing shorthanded marker he scored against the Detroit Red Wings in Game 4 of last spring’s Stanley Cup Final that might have helped thrust his name into the upper echelon of defensive forwards.
“I don’t know what has been different,” Staal said. “Maybe the (Stanley Cup) win last year. I thought I had a pretty solid season but no too much different than the previous ones.”
Unfortunately with an award such as the Selke Trophy, sometimes offensive statistics play more of a role in how voters cast their ballot than they probably otherwise should. Staal has taken great steps forward in this regard with back-to-back 49 point seasons, perhaps also helping to elevate his name in the eyes of voters.
Staal’s linemates, Cooke and Kennedy, each have a firsthand look at how well Staal plays without the puck. They already know he is one of best defensive presences in the league, so Cooke said they take it upon themselves to try to help Staal’s offensive game too.
“I think there is some responsibility there for TK and me,” Cooke said. “He might not be so happy with us because he has been stuck at 49 (points) for the last few years. It’s a nice accomplishment for our line that’s for sure.”
Staal’s competition for the award includes Datsyuk, who is the two-time reigning Selke Trophy champion, along with Kesler, who was the second runner-up behind Datsyuk last season.
“It is amazing just to be named with some of those elite players,” Staal said. “It’s a pretty special feeling. I am really happy.”
If Staal is able to walk away with the Selke Trophy at the NHL Awards Show on June 23 at the Pearl Concert Theater inside the Palms Hotel in Las Vegas, he will become the second Penguin to win the honor. Ron Francis won the Selke Trophy during the 1994-95 season. Other past winners include Hall of Famers Bob Gainey, Bobby Clarke and Steve Yzerman.
“I wouldn’t say that it is an underrated award,” Staal said. “There have been a lot of great players who have won it. I think any player would be proud to win an award like this.”
A bonus for Staal if he were to win the Selke Trophy would be bragging rights over his brothers, Carolina’s Eric and New York’s Marc. Jordan would become the first member of the family to garner a major NHL individual award.
“That would be up there,” Staal said. “It’s always fun to try to one-up your brothers and have a great season. I am sure they are proud of me.”