Every season in recent years for the Pittsburgh Penguins it seems like there is some storyline bubbling just under the surface and 2008-09 is no different as all eyes seemed to be focused on 20-year old Jordan Staal. Many Pens fans, and I am guessing people within the organization as well, are wondering just what the Penguins really have in Staal. Jordan set the bar (too?) high in his rookie campaign scoring 29 goals and 42 points in 2006-07. Last season Staal's totals sagged to a modest 12 goals and 28 points. As Jordan enters the final year of his entry level contract it remains to be seen if he can rediscover his scoring touch or if he continues to plug along as a third line center.
I said as early as the start of last season that it could be a while before Jordan approached 29 goals in a season again. His rookie season just felt a little too good to be true to me. It was like almost everything he threw at the net just found a way in. Having said that, I do think he can produce more offensively than he did last season or so far this season.
Offense is just one facet to Staal's game however. While centering the Penguins third line for almost all of last season Staal found himself serving as one of the key pieces to the Penguins defensive puzzle. Jordan thrived in this role, even if his stats may have said otherwise, and was a key contributor in Pittsburgh's trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Staal's defensive contributions can not be taken lightly, but as many NHL media outlets continue to suggest that Staal should command an annual salary around $4.5-$5 million one has to wonder if that is enough. The Penguins are flirting with the salary cap and can ill afford to pay anywhere near those dollar amounts for a third line center. At this point I would argue that Max Talbot, another Penguin headed for free agency, is more valuable to the Pens and could give them everything Staal does at a much more affordable price. If you came to me right now and said the Penguins can only keep Talbot or Staal heading into next season I would start asking who the Pens were planning to trade Staal too.
That brings us to the second part of this discussion... did the Penguins make the right move in drafting Jordan Staal? For the sake of simplicity I will only consider the eight players taken after Staal in 2006 who rounded out the top 10 picks. Here are some of the guys the Pens could have nabbed instead of Staal:
- Jonathan Toews - Toews does not even have a full season worth of NHL experience, but he has already been named the Captain of the Blackhawks and is (along with Patrick Kane) the face of the franchise. For the record, Toews has one fewer goal than Staal so far this season... zero.
- Nicklas Backstrom - Another player with a grand total of zero goals so far this season, Backstrom had an outstanding rookie season with 69 points in 82 games, yet he is probably best known for a goal he scored for the opposition. Very much a playmaker, Backstrom wouldn't add anything that the Pens don't already have.
- Phil Kessel - Kessel has had a turbulent start to his pro career, but he is quietly developing into a top notch goal scorer. He only has 37 goals in 164 career games, but he also has 7 goals already this season in just 12 games. Kessel was also strong for the Bruins in the playoffs last April.
- Derick Brassard - Brassard has just 28 NHL contests to his name, but he has 11 points through Columbus' first 11 games this season and is the team leader in scoring. He was also just named the Rookie of the Month in the NHL for October. Brassard may yet prove to be the jewel of the 2006 draft.
- Kyle Okposo - Okposo is another player just getting his feet wet in the NHL, but it has been so far so good for the Islanders prospect. 8 points in 20 games is a decent start for Okposo as he should be the centerpiece of the Islanders rebuilding process.
- Peter Mueller - Peter Mueller is a player I really like a lot. He got off to a blazing start last season and then hit the wall a bit in the second half, but he still finished with 54 points. Mueller is off to another solid start in 2008-09 and he should be a cornerstone of the Phoenix attack for many years to come.
I want to close this out by saying that I am a big Jordan Staal fan (and I have the Staal jersey tee to prove it) and would love nothing more to see him blossom into a regular 40-goal scoring left winger for the Penguins. With that on the table I understand that this is the salary cap era and the Penguins are not in the position to be throwing around $5 million contracts to anyone who asks for one. Just ask Ryan Malone. I know that Ray Shero has an exact amount in his mind that he thinks Jordan Staal is worth to his Penguins team. If Jordan Staal's offensive output does not increase then I think the gap between that number and the one Staal's agent will be asking for in July will be too much for Shero, and that could pave the way for a Staal trade in February. I for one hope it never comes to that.