-- Jordan Staal
saw an old friend Monday morning when Zach Bogosian walked into the visitor's dressing room at Joe Louis Arena with the other five top NHL Entry Draft prospects in town for the Stanley Cup Final.
Bogosian and Staal trained together with the Peterborough Petes for about two weeks two years ago. Bogosian was a 16-year-old OHL rookie and Staal was a 17-year-old who had recently been drafted second overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"Two weeks, that's it," Bogosian told NHL.com. "If you looked at us, it was like we were together for two years."
They could have been. For all intents and purposes, they should have been. Staal, though, had other ideas, and age had nothing to do with it.
Instead of playing in Peterborough the last two seasons, Staal has made it big with the Pittsburgh Penguins, so big that now he's the first teenager to play in the Stanley Cup Final since Dainius Zubrus did it as a 19-year-old with Philadelphia in 1997.
"This is what I have always dreamt about doing, so I haven't thought about missing anything else," Staal told NHL.com. "The only thing I would miss is the Cup if we don't win it. There is no other place I'd rather be."
That he's already here is quite an amazing story.
After making his NHL debut on Oct. 5, 2006, there was speculation that Staal would quickly be returned to Peterborough because he wasn't quite NHL ready. But he had four goals by his ninth game, when he was already labeled as one of the Penguins' top penalty killers.
GM Ray Shero chose to keep him on the roster for Game No. 10, meaning Staal was a professional for good and his rookie year would count against his contract. Once the season was half old Staal became eligible for unrestricted free agency in 2013.
"Probably good fortune for Jordan is (Evgeni) Malkin was injured at the time in the preseason so we wanted to keep Jordan around, and the longer we kept him around the better he got," Shero told NHL.com. "To me, the decision to keep him up was more about credibility. He was clearly good enough to be on our hockey team and we wanted to make a statement early on that we were going to be a complete hockey team, and to me you need the best players. To send him back just because of his age or a contract situation seven years from now didn't make sense."
Staal made Shero look like a visionary as he finished his rookie season with 29 goals, including seven while shorthanded, and 13 assists. Staal's plus-16 rating was No. 1 on the team. He was a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy, which went to teammate Evgeni Malkin.
"I didn't foresee him scoring 29 goals," Shero said, "but he got better as the season went on and he played above our expectations."
"You can tell how much stronger he is," Bogosian said of his former teammate. "I remember when I first met him, he was like a little boy and now he's like a man. He's matured a lot and he's such a big kid and he's done so well because he's so strong."
But like any other young player, Staal was quickly dealt some adversity. The only difference was it came to him after he found success at the NHL level, not before like it does for so many others.
Staal's rookie numbers were overwhelming, but his sophomore numbers left a little something to be desired. He finished this past regular season with only 12 goals, only 28 points. His plus-minus rating dropped 21 points to a minus-5.
At 19-years-old, he was already hearing criticism. Seems unfair, but that's the life of a professional athlete. Age doesn't save you if you're not reaching the bar you set for yourself.
"I thought I was playing decent hockey through the whole season," Staal said. "The goals weren't going in for me, but the team was winning and I was contributing to the team at different levels. I wanted a better offensive effort this year, but it's not easy when you're playing behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. I was trying to find my groove and find a way to help the team."
On paper it appears Staal did take a step backward in his progress, but Penguins coach Michel Therrien argues the opposite.
Last year Staal piled up those lofty numbers because he was playing on Malkin's left wing. He wasn't taxed with the responsibility of centering his own line.
"It's a process, and last year he was only 18 years old so we didn't want to give him the responsibility to be a centerman," Therrien said. "It's really demanding the way we try to play for centermen so last year he was more like a left winger. We wanted to make sure he knew the League."
And entering this season?
"I thought he was ready for the challenge," the coach said. "I'll tell you something, he's really dependable."
But what about the drop off in goal output from Staal?
"I don't think too much about numbers," Therrien said. "Last year, yes, that was nice he scored 29 goals, but that was kind of a surprise for everyone. The year before in Peterborough is when he scored 28 goals. And that was a surprise."
Staal, though, has elevated his offense in these playoffs. His six goals through the first three rounds are proof that Staal can not only handle the responsibility of running his own line, but can do it as a complete two-way player.
"He scored some big goals for us in the playoffs, but for a kid who is 19-years-old he was playing against the top players in the League and he did a fabulous job," Therrien said. "He's doing a good job in the penalty killing. He's there for a second unit of power play, but that's a process with him. He's still in the development program, because he could have played Junior this year."
He would have been with Bogosian, but instead he's with Malkin and Sidney Crosby in the spotlight of the Stanley Cup Final.
According to Staal, it's just where he ought to be.
"Just playing consistent hockey was a big thing for me," Staal said. "Throughout Junior I had some ups and downs, but mentally I have gotten a lot stronger this year.
"I'm a little young, but I feel like I've been playing older than I look."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Staff Writer