With all the well-deserved buzz surrounding the chemistry between Evgeni Malkin and James Neal as the pair set the NHL ablaze, there is one member of the Pittsburgh Penguins who isn’t getting the recognition he so justly deserves. He’s 23 years old, scores goals like crazy, and lines up down the middle behind two all-world centermen… That’s right. I’m talking about Thunder Bay, Ontario native, Jordan Staal.
It’s perfectly understandable that Jordan Staal’s offensive coming out party would be overshadowed on a Pittsburgh team that boasts perhaps the two most talented centermen in the game. Through his entire career Staal has played second – even third – fiddle to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and this year is no different. While Malkin and Staal each average around 20+ minutes per game, Malkin has the decided advantage in PP time – more than doubling Staal’s 2+ minutes PP time per game. Even with less offensive chances, Jordan Staal has been able to produce offense on a nightly basis, putting to rest any doubts regarding his long term upside. Through 44 games Staal has netted 21 goals and 12 assists (0.75 ppg), and over the course of an entire 82-game schedule would be on pace to tally just under 40 goals. Pretty darn impressive for a guy who many had labeled as a third-line checker, or even a “flash in the pan” after his 29-goal rookie season. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the young center’s offensive explosion is that he has accumulated 21 goals on only 102 shots, firing at a 20.1 shooting%. Having emerged as an elite goalscorer, Staal joins the likes of Evgeni Malkin and James Neal – among others – as threats to tickle the twine whenever their skates touch the ice.
Jordan Staal’s penchant for lighting the lamp hasn’t just been a solo effort. After recently being put on a line with the veteran set-up man Steve Sullivan, the pair has responded by almost instantly developing a great chemistry. Staal and Sullivan have combined for 22 points (9g) in the past 10 games and they appear to just be scratching the surface of their potential as a lethal scoring duo. Staal’s physicality and nose for the net seem to mesh perfectly with Sullivan’s puck skills and playmaking ability, and the fruits of their symbiotic relationship don’t bode well for the other 29 teams in the NHL. Still, it is important to note that before playing on a line with Jordan Staal, Sullivan was having a season characterized by relative inconsistency outside of the points he mustered on the man-advantage. Now that he has Staal around to dominate opponents and create space for his offensive trickery, Sullivan has been let loose to flourish against opposing defensemen. As is evidenced by Sullivan’s mini-resurgence, Staal has shown an ability to make the players around him better, while elevating his own game to another level.
When it comes down to all-around value to his team, Jordan Staal seriously does not get enough credit. In his sixth NHL season, Staal is relied upon to perform many different tasks, performing all of them well. Whether it’s shutting down the opponent’s top offensive threats, playing important shorthanded and powerplay minutes, or even taking key faceoffs, Jordan Staal is one of the Penguins’ most valuable – and underrated – players. With Crosby sidelined, and questions surrounding the possible return of Kris Letang in the near future, Jordan Staal’s importance to the Pittsburgh Penguins has never been greater. The biggest test will come over the next eighteen games as the Penguins fight to clinch home-ice in the playoffs. Staal’s leadership will be necessary to accomplish that goal.