Much ink and pixellage has been used early in the 2009-10 NHL season to describe the significant improvement of Pittsburgh captain and top-line centre Sidney Crosby on faceoffs. For a player widely acknowledged as among the best, if not the best in the world, continuing improvement by Crosby in a former area of weakness must be deflating for opposing teams who already have enough trouble defending against his many strengths.
Of course, the Penguins’ #2 centre isn’t bad either: reigning Art Ross and Conn Smythe winner Evgeni Malkin. Barring injuries, the Penguins know that continued consistent work ethic, perseverance to improve and natural maturity – both physical and mental – from Crosby and Malkin will give the club a chance to venture far into the playoffs every spring.
But the difference between merely being a strong playoff contender and being a Stanley Cup favourite lies further down the depth chart. On offence, scoring from wingers flanking Crosby and Malkin as well as from third and fourth liners will be a key factor determining success or failure in defending the Cup this season. While some clubs boast two star centres like the Penguins, no other team possesses the talent at the centre position on the third line that Pittsburgh does in Jordan Staal.
Great things have been expected of Staal since the Penguins drafted him second overall in 2006. He finished second in rookie goal scoring and +/-, tops in rookie shorthanded time on ice per game and tops among all NHL players in shorthanded goals and shooting percentage. He was a nominee for the Calder Trophy that was won by his teammate, Malkin.
In his second season, some analysts and fans grumbled as they felt Staal was beset by the mythical sophomore jinx, slumping from twenty-nine to twelve goals. However, cursory ‘G-A-PTS’ statistics do not tell the whole story. Staal, who was so effective on the penalty kill in his rookie campaign, remained in that role, keeping his focus on defending against the opposition’s best attackers in both shorthanded and even-strength situations. While his scoring statistics were down, his overall ice time and special-teams ice time both saw significant increases as he became one of the team’s most reliable penalty killing forwards.
Last season, Staal produced a fine all-around performance. He set a career high in points with forty-nine and again accepted an increase in total ice time and shorthanded ice time, consolidating his status as one of the NHL’s elite penalty killers. Staal and his teammates were able to improve the Penguins team standing from twenty-third in 2007-08 to eighth overall in 2008-09 in penalty-kill percentage. Additionally, Staal’s willingness to look for a scoring chance during shorthanded situations when prudent, instead of merely icing the puck, was never more apparent than in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final. His game-tying, shorthanded goal in the second period led to a 4-2 series-tying Pittsburgh victory and was considered to be a turning point in the series.
What can fans and the Penguins themselves expect from big #11 this season? Judging by the table (above) and early results this season, there is every reason to believe Staal will continue to embrace and conquer new challenges, providing reliable penalty-kill minutes and solid two-way play at centre while steadily improving his offensive skills.
One characteristic of Staal that makes him valuable is his durability. Whether due to proper physical conditioning, genetics or plain luck, Staal has played every regular season game scheduled except one, and every playoff game (49) over the last three years. Note the upward trend in his ice time year-over-year, especially in shorthanded situations. In the last two completed regular seasons, he logged more minutes per game than any other Penguins forward on the penalty kill and ranked in the top twelve league-wide both years.
From an offensive standpoint this season, it would not be surprising to see Staal score twenty-five to thirty goals whether due to more frequent appearances on the top power play unit or simply from regular in-game elevation to the second line where he would skate with Malkin. Several times already this season, Staal has skated at left wing on the second line and two of his three goals this year were assisted by Malkin. I expect Staal generally to remain on the cohesive third line with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy simply due to that line’s effectiveness at both ends of the rink dating back to last season. However, by combining Staal’s long reach, size and positioning with Malkin’s vision, size and skill at the right time, opposing coaches will have tremendous match-up headaches leading to more scoring opportunities for the Penguins.
Finally, it should not escape notice that like Crosby, Staal has also significantly improved his faceoff winning percentage. From an abysmal 37.1% in his rookie campaign to an even 50% in early 2009-10, Staal has clearly continued working to sharpen his skills on the draw. This business-like attitude projected by the Penguins, no longer looking back at last year’s triumph, but looking at the present and doggedly working to improve in all areas, bodes well as the season progresses.
Through the ups and downs of a long hockey season, though Staal will continue to provide consistent penalty killing, he may hit patches where he fails to score for a long stretch of games and will once again hear grumbling in the crowd. However, Penguin-watchers must remember that hockey is a two-way game and a team game. Scoring is always shared. On some nights it will be Crosby; other nights, it will be Malkin; other nights, Staal; other nights, others.
The axis of the Penguins’ championship teams historically were a trio of Hall of Fame centres: Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis and Bryan Trottier – a balance of scoring and defence. Time will tell whether Crosby, Malkin and Staal can match their great achievements.
Clarification: David Steckel of Washington actually logged more shorthanded time on ice per game in 2006-07 than Staal, but Steckel only played five games that year and retained his rookie status through 2007-08. For this reason, I recorded Staal as “tops in rookie shorthanded time on ice per game” in 2006-07.
Statistical source: nhl.com
Table and photo: both produced by PenguinsMarch
Filed Under: Pittsburgh Penguins
About the Author: Adrian Fung (@PenguinsMarch) contributes game reports, opinions, analysis and features, mostly about the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has covered the World Hockey Summit, Kraft Hockeyville, World Junior Championship exhibition games, CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, MasterCard Memorial Cup and NHL Rookie Tournament for Hockey Independent. twitter.com/PenguinsMarch