Much is written about the Pittsburgh Penguins with good reason. They have electric young talent in current NHL scoring leader Evgeni Malkin, the face of the league in Sidney Crosby, and an excellent young goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury. Oh yeah, and the Pens are the defending Eastern Conference Champions, owned by Hall of Fame icon Mario Lemieux.
In other words, the Penguins don't lack for story lines. And with an 11-4-2 start despite missing top defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney, young players Kris Letang and rookie Alex Goligoski have received valuable minutes they otherwise wouldn't. Plus, GM Ray Shero just added veteran blueliner Philippe Boucher to the mix by sending Darryl Sydor to the Dallas Stars.
With all that, the Penguin who intrigues me is Jordan Staal. At 6' 4" and 220 pounds, Staal is man-sized, yet he's just 20-years old. Despite his youthfulness, he's already in his third NHL campaign. Personnel, in part, defines his role, with Malkin and Crosby also being centermen. But that doesn't tell the whole story. Staal plays over 20 minutes a game, just a couple of minutes less than Pittsburgh's big two and more than Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf and Boston's Marc Savard.
This is a player who reminds me more of a prototypical winger along the lines of former Big Bad Bruins great Wayne Cashman than a big man in the middle with soft hands and good defensive instincts. Yet, that is exactly where Staal's ultimate value lies for the Penguins. It has always been his strength. I asked him if he'd ever been a winger growing up and he paused, pondered, shook his head and said, "No, not really. I've always been in the middle."
So, instead of thinking Cashman -- who immediately came to mind when I first saw Staal's imposing presence when controlling the puck along the boards -- maybe I should be thinking Jean Ratelle or Jean Beliveau. But those players evoke memories of grace, while Staal's style is more bruising than beautiful. Goals are coming quickly recently, for Staal with six in his last four games -- more the result of effective cycling and grinding with linemates Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy than open ice artistry.
In today's NHL, then, who is a comparable big man? Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza are more playmakers and not thought of as shutdown candidates defensively. Staal has more goals than assists, which is rare for a centerman, but in tune with his rookie season when he netted 29 goals while only registering just 13 assists. Closer in dimension might be Jeff Carter of the Flyers or veterans Jason Arnott in Nashville and Rod Brind'Amour of the Carolina Hurricanes. All of those pivots score and check and play with a physical presence and, in the case of Arnott and Brind'Amour -- who Jordan's brother Eric plays behind as Carolina's number two center -- both are excellent models to aspire to.
Which brings us back to the major difference where Jordan Staal is concerned: he is slotted as the Penguins' third man in the middle. Coach Michel Therrien has done a masterful job carving out minutes at center ice for this hard-to-define manchild, whether it be on the penalty kill, skating four-on-four, or late in games with the goaltender pulled. Staal's rather unique skill set as part of this roster gives the Penguins tremendous flexibility and creates tangible line matching advantages.
In the end, Jordan Staal fits perfectly in Pittsburgh, giving the Penguins enviable depth down the middle. And he still only beginning to realize his full potential.