Monday, October 30, 2006

Staal to stay in Pittsburgh

Eric Duhatschek has a column on-line at that hits all of the right notes on the Penguins' decision to keep Jordan Staal in the NHL, and there's not really a ton of new information to add. What I would say is that if Pittsburgh's record was, say, 3-6-0 and not 6-3-0, I think we would now be talking about the youngster heading back to Peterborough and the OHL.

What I find the most interesting about Staal so far is the role he's carved out in the NHL as one of the Penguins' top penalty-killing forwards. It's not common to see any rookie, other than a budding star defenceman, play when shorthanded, and it's even less common to see one make an impact in that role with what is, for the moment, a winning team.

The Penguins' penalty kill was one of the worst in the NHL last season (29th), stopping just 78.8 per cent of other team's opportunities, and given the personnel new GM Ray Shero shipped in during the offseason, I'd thought it would once again be an area where Pittsburgh would struggle.

As of now, however, they're bobbing along at 12th in the NHL (85.2%) when down a man, and are on pace to allow 31 fewer power-play goals this season.

That's a big difference.

Now, that's not to say Staal alone has forced the team's swing, but he is the team's second-leading forward for shorthanded ice time per game (4:19). He's only averaging 13:14 ice time total per game, and when you factor in the 1:20 on the power play, Staal is about as close to a special-teams specialist as there is in the league (about 43 per cent of his ice time comes on either the PP or PK).

In terms of rookies, no one is even close to putting in as much penalty killing time as Staal. He's currently the rookie leader in shorthanded ice time per game — and that includes defencemen, where only San Jose's Marc-Edouard Vlasic comes close at 4:14 per game. The next closest freshman forward is Colorado's Paul Stastny, who plays nearly two fewer minutes shorthanded per game than Staal.

In all, there are only five rookie forwards, including Staal, playing any significant role on any PK squad in the league.

The bottom line to all this?

Staal's contributions, even if we overlook the three shorthanded goals and five points he's managed so far, aren't negligible, and the minutes he's playing aren't easy ones. In fact, given his lack of even-strength ice time, the fact he has so many points is impressive on its own, and given his size and strength, keeping up at just 18 (and a young 18 at that) won't be a problem.

This is a gifted kid, and there's no shortage of those for the Penguins. I can't wait to see this team in the playoffs — preferably this April.


At 6:52 p.m., October 30, 2006, Blogger Earl Sleek said...

Kind of sounds like a first-year John Madden, and the Devils did pretty well relying on that rookie penalty-killing forward.

At 7:53 p.m., October 30, 2006, Blogger James Mirtle said...

Except, of course, Madden was 24 when he broke into the league. The PK's always portrayed as a veteran's domain, so it's interesting when anyone that young can contribute.

At 8:22 p.m., October 30, 2006, Blogger Docciavelli said...

I like the decision, especially after seeing the play he made stepping around Rathje the other night setting up a nice put-away. Yeah, they'll have to pay him the big-bucks the same year as Malkin, but if Balsille succeeds in bringing the franchise around by then (he's got 7 years to do it--and he'll have a building) it won't matter much. Frankly, with the slots/building issue looming over the franchise, the impetus is to win and win now. Staal has proven he deserves to stay, and why not...other than the delay of a contract by 1 year? That certainly is offset by the benefit of what he's bringing to the squad now. If the Pens make the playoffs, partly due to his contribution, it's well worth it to sacrifice in 2013.

At 12:36 a.m., October 31, 2006, Blogger J. Michael Neal said...

I don't know much about Jordan Staal's background, but it is also true that Madden developed a reputation as a penalty killing demon at the University of Michigan. His senior year, he was third in the NCAA for short-handed goals - among teams. I simply have never seen a college player kill penalties with the not-so-reckless abandon that Madden did.

At 1:42 a.m., October 31, 2006, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

He is no Mägni Thöroson, the Ëlectric Nörseman, by Loki the Shape-Changer!

At 11:01 a.m., October 31, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So much for the cynics out there (hello, Tom Benjamin!) who would have us believe that teams would always return players like Staal, in order to delay their arbitration and free agency rights for one more year.

At 11:25 a.m., October 31, 2006, Blogger bluzeman1 said...

Along with Staal's amazing start and the synchronicity of Malkin and Crosby, what has amazed me in these first nine games for the Penguins is that the defense has been holding its own. The Pens gave up more goals than any team in the league, I believe, last year. I haven't read any comments in print about individual defensemen, but obviously the team has bought into a system that is working. In two of their losses, they gave up only two goals. And we know they're going to score closer to four on any given night with their top lines functioning so well. Hail the unheralded defense!


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