Penguins center Jordan Staal
celebrated his 21st birthday by meeting President Barrack Obama at the White House in Washington, DC. It’s not a normal way to celebrate a birthday, but Staal is not your average 21-year old.
Consider that he’s already played three full seasons in the National Hockey League, played in the Stanley Cup Final twice, owns several NHL rookie records and, of course, has already won a Stanley Cup championship.
“It’s hard to believe. It’s seems like we’ve been watching this guy for such a long time,” assistant coach Tony Granato said. “He just turned 21 years old. The experience that he has and the big games that he’s play in, the success he’s had, it’s incredible for someone so young.”
“He’s very mature for his age,” linemate Matt Cooke
said. “I noticed that really early. He comes from a great family. I think that’s enabled him to be a great player at a young age.”
Staal also feels that he is stronger mentally and physically entering this year’s training camp than at any other point in his career.
“It’s definitely the most comfortable that I’ve been,” he said. “With the season we had before and knowing the guys well, it’s always nice to come into camp well acquainted with everyone. I’m feeling confident and ready to play.”
Staal elevated his play to a new level during the Penguins' Cup run and was one of the team’s most important players. He was matched up against the opposing team’s top forwards and was able to shut down Philadelphia’s Jeff Carter and his brother Eric Staal of Carolina.
“A lot of times he plays against the opponent’s top line,” said Granato, who has coached such notable centers as Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg. “He’s going against a lot of big time players in big time situations. He’s a very reliable penalty killer, reliable defensively. You look at 27- and 28-year-old guys that have been in the league a long time and still haven’t figured out that part of the game. He’s way ahead of the curve that way.”
Staal can also chip in offensively. Just consider the big goals he scored during in critical games of the team's playoff run, including key scores in Games 4 and 6 of the Final.
“It was nice to chip in as a player throughout that playoff run,” Staal said. “Like we said before in that playoff run, everyone was going to wear the cape at some point and there were a lot of moments for every player that did well for our team. That’s how you win Cups, playing as a team.”
And now Staal wants to continue that level of play entering the current hockey campaign.
“I want to play that kind of hockey every night,” he said. “It’s not easy. It’s something that as a player I want to keep getting better at.”
The scary thing is that Staal is only going to improve. As he gains more experience and matures as a player, he’s going to get better.
“When you look at him and how well he’s played and you realize that at that age there is a lot more in front of him as far as development, better hockey,” Granato said. “That’s always exciting for an organization. He’s a long way from reaching his prime.”
“He’s such a big guy, so strong, really strong on his skates,” Cooke said. “He’s very reliable in his own end. He makes it easy for a winger to play with him. You know that he’s that responsible. I think that his offense in underrated, the ability to cycle the puck and play in the offensive zone, and really control the play is underrated.”
Staal’s phenomenal play has garnered international attention. He was invited to attend Team Canada’s Olympic camp in preparation for the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.
“It was fun. It was a little nerve racking being around all those great players,” Staal said. “It’s something that I’ll never forget. It was a tough camp but at the same time it was nice to meet all the guys, meet the people running it and it should be an interesting what happens.
“It was an honor. I was pretty shocked when I got the call. I was super excited about it. It was a big confidence boost to be invited to the camp with so many great players. It was a lot of fun.”
The sky is the limit on Staal’s potential. And while he may only have just turned 21, with his maturity, Staal acts and plays more like a seasoned veteran.
“Every time you see him you’d think he’s been in the league 10 years,” Granato said. “The experience that he’s gain in that time, he’s way ahead of any other player at that point in his career. The bright thing is that he’s still young and has time to develop, get better and better and that’s a very encouraging thing.”