February 28, 2013

Jordan Staal memories

Jordan Staal's first NHL goal was a sign of things to come.

Madison Square Garden. Oct. 12, 2006. Killing a penalty.

His read on the play to intercept the pass and score on a breakaway showed what kind of defensive presence he would become as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

I was a big fan of Staal. As one of the three-headed monster, he gave the Penguins incredible strength down the middle. Not only would teams have to shut down Sidney Crosby and then Evgeni Malkin, but they would also have to worry about Staal on the third line.

Staal gave Michel Therrien and then Dan Bylsma the luxury of using him primarily for defensive purposes or, if needed, he could fill a role on one of the top two lines. This was on display in 2011 with Crosby out and Staal, returning from a broken hand, scored 11 goals and 30 points for the Penguins in 42 games during the second half.

Keeping Staal a Penguins long-term was going to be tough. As valuable as he was, spending $6 million for a primarily third line center just isn't feasible in this salary cap era, no matter if the Penguins are team that finds itself with a higher payroll these days. There were always the whispers about how he didn't want to be stuck behind Crosby and Malkin, so when he expressed that himself after being dealt to the Carolina Hurricanes during the Draft last June, it was refreshing. At least it was now known what his aspirations were.

Staal was a good soldier; a key contributor to the 2009 Cup team (I get a hockey boner every time I think of his shorthanded goal in Game 4 vs. the Red Wings); and a guy who developed in a solid NHL player, even with the crowd that likes to go back in time and bitch that GM Ray Shero should have used that No. 2 pick in 2006 on Jonathan Toews.

His six years of service in Pittsburgh turned into the package that inclued Brandon Sutter, a somewhat similar player who's coming into his own and much cheaper than the $6 million a year deal that Staal rejected from the Penguins, but accepted to play with his brother in Carolina. It all worked out in the end for everyone.

The hat trick against Philly in the playoffs.
The incredible comeback in the third period against the Red Wings on that November night in 2008. The nickname of "Gronk" thanks to Colby Armstrong.

When Staal faces the Penguins for the first time in Pittsburgh on April 27, there will be a nice video tribute on the CONSOL Energy Center videoboard. There will be a good ovation for him from the crowd that night (despite some cheers after the trade announcement last June). There will be a lot of reflection on what he meant to the Penguins organization.

Staal's No. 11 won't hang from the CONSOL rafters, but he was a vital part of an important phase in the franchise's evolution.

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