Besides the usual family chitchat, there is always this question: “Have they told you anything yet?”
No, not yet, and a lot of Penguins fans are beginning to wonder why.
Jordan Staal has been with the Penguins just six weeks – during which time he turned 18 – yet the first-round draft pick is accomplishing scoring feats previously unseen in the NHL.
He is the youngest player to score short-handed twice in a game and to score on a penalty shot, doing both Oct. 21 against Columbus. The Thunder Bay, Ont., native’s strong play earned him a promotion to the Penguins’ second line this week, yet he still doesn’t know if he will be with Pittsburgh or back in junior hockey in Peterborough, Ont., on Monday.
With four goals in his first eight games, that would seem improbable.
Eric Staal has been telling his younger brother it would be ridiculous for the Penguins to send him down.
“Yeah, but he’s prejudiced,” Jordan Staal said.
Because Staal is so young, he still has junior major hockey eligibility remaining. That means his three-year NHL rookie contract kicks in if he is on the Penguins’ roster beyond their ninth game of the season Saturday night in Philadelphia. Their 10th game is Wednesday in Los Angeles.
The Penguins’ remarkable wealth of young talent – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, Staal – figures into their conundrum.
“I think by his play he’s proven he can play here, but outside of that he can’t do anything,” Crosby said. “It’s out of his control. He can look himself in the mirror and say he’s done his best.”
The way Staal is playing, general manager Ray Shero’s decision would seem to be easy. It isn’t, especially with the Penguins off to a 5-3 start after going winless in their first nine games last season.
If Staal stays, the Penguins might have to pay him and rookie of the year front-runner Malkin major money as restricted free agents in 2009, a year after also doing so with Crosby.
As a result, they might have trouble matching qualifying offers to all three and staying under the salary cap. The Penguins had planned on paying out only one big salary increase per season.
If Staal goes back to the Petes, he can’t rejoin the Penguins until Peterborough’s season is over. If they keep him, and his progress levels off, the Penguins will have unnecessarily used up one season of the three he can play before becoming a restricted free agent.
The Penguins endured four consecutive last-place finishes in the Atlantic Division for the chance to draft their elite collection of young players – one that already promises to be something special.
Malkin scored a goal in each of his first four NHL games; Crosby is improving on the pace of his 102-point rookie season; and Fleury had a 2.50 goals-against average through eight games. Not one of their four core players is older than 21.
That’s why the Penguins would rather not risk losing any of their franchise stars as soon as three years from now. Yet Staal is playing so well, it might significantly reduce Pittsburgh’s playoff chances this season if he leaves.
“I don’t think the talent here surprises you at all,” Devils coach Claude Julien said. “How many first overall picks do they have? When you get those picks, you get players like Crosby and Malkin.” Crosby and Fleury were No. 1 picks, Malkin and Staal were No. 2s. Shero, overseeing his first draft in June, had numerous offers to trade that No. 2 pick but decided the day before he had to get the six-foot-four Staal if he was there.
Before the draft, some NHL scouts said Staal could be better than big brother Eric – who, at age 21, had a 100-point regular season and led Carolina to the Stanley Cup.
“The only way I can beat him is win more cups than he does, but that’s still a long ways away,” Jordan Staal said.
Staal didn’t flinch under the increased pressure of having to produce on the No. 2 line. He scored his third goal in two games Tuesday against New Jersey. Using his size and long reach effectively as a penalty-killer, he was pivotal in fending off a four-minute Devils power play.
“We’ve got to make a decision soon, and that’s one reason he’s up there,” coach Michel Therrien said of moving Staal to the second line.
The change was made after Malkin and Crosby were teamed on the first line.
“They’re giving me a lot of opportunities, and I’m trying to do my best and hopefully keep the ball rolling,” Staal said.
He’s already doing that. On Oct. 21, he became the youngest player – at 18 years, 41 days – to score two goals in an NHL game since Bep Guidolin (18 years, 12 days) for Boston in 1943.
“I’m not the general manager, but I know he’s a good hockey player,” said Mark Recchi, who was teamed with Nils Ekman on Staal’s line. “He has gotten better from Day 1 – he’s improving, not regressing. He must have had four breakaways short-handed. He’s made it very difficult for them, and, as a player, that’s all you can do.”