The 18-year-old rookie centre’s strong play earned him a promotion Monday to the Penguins’ second line, yet he still doesn’t know if he will be in the league a week from now.
Despite being the youngest player in NHL history to score short-handed twice in a game and to score on a penalty shot, as he did Saturday night against Columbus, Staal isn’t certain of staying with Pittsburgh beyond Saturday.
“My brother text-messages me a lot, asking me if I know anything yet,” Staal said Monday, referring to brother Eric Staal of Stanley Cup champion Carolina. “Obviously, I don’t have anything to tell him yet.”
The Penguins’ wealth of young talent – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Staal – is part of the problem. Because Staal, the No. 2 pick in the June draft, has junior major hockey eligibility remaining, his NHL contract kicks in and his seven-year countdown to free agency starts if he is on the Penguins’ roster beyond their ninth game.
The way he is playing – with three goals, all short-handed, in seven games – general manager Ray Shero’s decision would seem to be easy. It isn’t, especially with the Penguins off to a 4-3 start after going winless in their first nine games last season.
If Staal stays, the Penguins might have to pay him and Malkin major money as restricted free agents in 2009, a year after also doing so with Crosby. They also might have trouble matching qualifying offers to all three and remaining under the salary cap. Previously, the Penguins felt they could spread out the contracts of the first-round picks over at least three seasons.
If the Penguins send Staal back to his junior team in Peterborough, Ont., he can’t rejoin them or be sent to the minors until that team’s season is over. If they keep him, and his progress levels off, the Penguins will have unnecessarily used up one season of the seven he can play before becoming a free agent and disrupted their own financial timetable.
“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 for Tuesday night’s game against New Jersey.
Malkin has one goal in each of his first three NHL games as the second-line center, but will join Crosby on the top line – if only temporarily – because forward Ryan Malone is out four to six weeks with a broken hand. Malkin and Crosby have played well together on the power play, with the Penguins going 6-of-18 with the man advantage since Malkin made his NHL debut Wednesday.
The six-foot-four Staal moves up from the fourth line to replace Malkin and remains on the top penalty-killing unit because of his long reach and stickhandling ability.
“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 Saturday, he became the youngest player – at 18 years 41 days – to score two goals of any kind in a 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 will play on Staal’s line along with Nils Ekman. “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.”
Until Staal scored short-handed twice against Columbus, the youngest player to do so was Radek Dvorak (20 years 278 days) with Florida in 1997; Staal is more than 2 1/2 years younger. And the youngest to score on a penalty shot had been Nathan Horton (18 years 224 days) with Florida in 2004.
“For sure, 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.”