If last year’s draft was any indication, anyone can be traded in the NHL these days. It was that fateful Thursday media luncheon that saw dozens of smartphones blow up with news of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter being dealt away from Philadelphia in separate trades, despite being on huge long-term deals.
So expect the unexpected in Pittsburgh next week. Rick Nash, Roberto Luongo, Edmonton’s first overall selection – you never know. Another name to keep an eye on is the Penguins’ Jordan Staal. Though he has one year left on his contract, the superb center may be available sooner than later thanks to the crushing reality of the salary cap and the pivot’s own natural desire to be the best he can be. And if this holds true, the Toronto Maple Leafs should throw the kitchen sink at Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero.
The Buds have struggled in the post-lockout landscape for a variety of reasons, but the lack of a big No. 1 center is one of the most obvious. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Staal naturally fits the bill here, but becomes more intriguing thanks to his particular skill set. Staal is a two-way force who excels on the penalty kill, one of the bigger voids in Toronto right now. The Maple Leafs’ PK finished 28th overall this past season, while Staal posted three shorthanded goals (one off the league lead) to squire the Pens to the third-best kill percentage.
Despite playing just 62 games in 2011-12, the big Thunder Bay, Ont., native also hit a career high with 50 points. While that’s not an earth-shattering number, keep in mind Staal was largely buried behind Evgeni Malkin and, in the past, Sidney Crosby (where he will be again now that ‘The Kid’ is healthy). When all three were in the lineup at the same time, Staal’s running mates were grinders Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. Now imagine what he’d do feeding passes to Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.
That’s what you’re looking at in a perfect world. Mikhail Grabovski has the second line locked down in Toronto and Clarke MacArthur is his wingman, along with restricted free agent Nikolai Kulemin, who had a down year, but has shown in the past what he’s capable of contributing.
Kessel and Lupul were two of the few point-per-game players in the NHL this past season and Staal’s big body and attention to defense would make the duo even more dangerous to contend with.
But why, you ask, would Staal want to come to Toronto?
The challenge is a big reason. The Maple Leafs give Staal the chance to be the man, something he can only get in Pittsburgh when Crosby and Malkin are on the shelf. The best players are competitive and want pressure on their shoulders. There’s no reason to doubt Staal has those instincts. And since he has a Stanley Cup ring already, the chance to play for a rebuilding team rather than one right on the cusp of a title is a little more alluring. Imagine the legacy of being the centerpiece in a Toronto championship.
Of course, the Penguins want to keep Staal, but with his contract coming up at the same time as Crosby’s, decisions will have to be made. Both deserve raises and while the salary cap might be higher next season (who knows what a new CBA will decree), Pittsburgh will be in tough to balance its lineup. James Neal’s well-deserved $5 million cap hit kicks in next season and Malkin takes up $8.7 million of his own. Staal is entitled to at least the same as Neal, but that’s a lot of cash on precious few roster spots. As we learned from the Kings rebuild, fortune favors the bold and the cold-blooded. While the Penguins aren’t rebuilding, they do need to look at the near future and do what’s best for the long term before it’s too late.
And Toronto would do well to be at the front door when that time comes.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN’s associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.