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Expectations Must Be Changed For Jordan Staal

Back in the good old days of 2006, when the Pittsburgh Penguins were still developing their young, talented roster and expectations were minimal, a highly regarded teenager named Jordan Staal was preparing to make the leap into the NHL. Ranked as the second-best North American player in the deep 2006 NHL Draft by the NHL's Central Scouting Service, Staal left many a general manager salivating at the opportunity of drafting him.

At 17 years old, he was tall, rangy and had an enormous frame, standing at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, with plenty of room to grow. While defenseman Erik Johnson was essentially a lock as the overall first pick, few were surprised when Jordan was taken second by the Penguins.

Retrospectively, the move is a bit of a gut-puncher, but we'll get back to that later. At the time, it was a slam dunk. The draft was incredibly deep, and it didn't matter who the Penguins took in the first round (unless they really reached). They didn't and took Staal.

Staal was given an invite to training camp and impressed, earning a spot on the Penguins' roster to start the regular season. Now, the question shifted as to whether he would stick around for the remainder of the season or be sent back to juniors. By the NHL's rules, Staal had nine games to impress. If he wasn't sent back to juniors by the tenth, the first year of his entry-level contract would kick in. If he was sent back, he'd be stuck with the Peterborough Petes for the rest of the season.

Staal memorably scored four goals and added an assist in his first nine games NHL games, a torrid pace to start a career. GM Ray Shero saw enough and decided to keep Staal, who then proceeded to have a breakout season

Or so we thought. 

Staal went on to tally 42 points in his rookie campaign, including a still-career high 29 goals. But he regressed in his his second season, putting up 28 points and only 12 goals. The next year he scored 49 points followed by another 49 last year.

An unfortunate plateau for the 22-year-old center who, it's hard to believe, is now playing in his fifth NHL season.

Staal's strengths are fairly obvious. He uses his enormous frame to take up huge chunks of the ice, making him a tremendous asset on the penalty kill and even-strength situations. Staal also handles the puck well for a player of his size and is one of the few Penguins who can carry it coast to coast.

It was this mix of defensive prowess and ability on the puck that enabled him to score seven shorthanded goals as a rookie.

So, the obvious question becomes why has Staal only been able to score a total of three shorthanded goals since then?

Just prior to his drafting, CBC News ran an article on Staal that featured a number of quotes from Dick Todd, Peterborough's head coach for the two seasons that Staal was a member of the team. Though Todd was reluctant to put too much pressure on Staal, he believed that the youngster had the potential to be a game-breaker in the NHL:

"I think that he could be eventually like a Joe Thornton, a player that dominates. He also has the size and stature to be like a Vincent Lecavalier or an Eric Staal."

When describing Staal's abilities, he brought up some of the youngsters obvious gifts:

"He sees the ice well and has the ability to carry the puck from one end to the other," recently retired Peterborough Petes coach Dick Todd told CBC Sports Online. "He has good hands, is a big kid and can skate."

But Todd cautioned that he believed Staal could use at least one more year of conditioning in the OHL:

However, Todd wants to see his young protege gain experience at the world junior tournament and play another year with Peterborough before jumping into the NHL pressure cooker.

He points out that although Eric appeared to make a smooth transition to the NHL, the 21-year-old centre spent three years in junior and played one season in the American Hockey League during the NHL lockout.

"The lockout was very beneficial to Eric," said Todd. "He had a chance to take a year and dominate the AHL and so he gained the confidence that progressed into the NHL. There are only a few players like Sidney Crosby that can play right away."

The last line is key. There are only a few players who are like Sidney Crosby. Staal is not one of them.

If we go back to Todd's analysis, many of the strengths that we see from Staal in the NHL are evident there. What is noticeably absent are the areas that Staal is weak in, and its in these areas that, perhaps, Staal could have used another year of seasoning and, as Todd put it, "dominating."

Staal had a bit of a chip on his shoulder his rookie season. He played with something to prove and carried himself like a goal scorer. But since then, he has had little marked improvement. His passing is generally mediocre, he looks lost in the defensive zone at times, and often appears to have an off switch.

But just after New Year's 2009, Staal had apparently proven enough to warrant a four-year contract extension worth $16 million, a contract that became a hot topic amongst Penguins fans from the day it was signed. To many, it was an overpay. To Ray Shero, who has made a practice of signing young players to long-term extensions early in their careers, he was paying for the future in advance:

"Part of this contract is that we hope his best hockey is ahead of him," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said in Nashville. "Everybody is looking for good, young players and he fits that criteria, certainly. We'll see where it goes, but we don't sign a guy with the intent of trading him. It was always my intention to sign him, to get him under contract, because we see him as a big part of our future...

"He's so young," Shero said. "He's going to get better as a player. ... He's a kid that's going to get better as his career moves forward."

It has always been about Staal's potential, but little seems to have been done to nurture that potential, as he has been rushed into the NHL, continuously used on the third line and plays in a system that emphasizes workmanlike defensive-offense over flow, ingenuity and creativity.

Some call Staal the best third line player in the NHL, a fact that may be true. But, over the last five years, he has clearly not become a top-line center, and that is not an issue of who is in front of him. Evidence of his lack of top-line readiness could be found recently when Staal was given an opportunity to skate with Alex Kovalev and James Neal on the Penguins' de facto first line. The experiment was dropped quickly and Mark Letestu, a rookie apparently more suitable for the role, was given the job in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin's absence.

That neither Neal nor Kovalev have quite clicked is a problem for the Pens, but that Staal didn't fit on the line was obvious from the start and, perhaps, even more of a problem. 

Many judge Staal not simply on his merit as a player, but on who he is not, be it a player selected after him in the 2006 draft or another Staal brother. This does an injustice to Staal.

In 1990, Jaromir Jagr was selected fifth overall in the NHL draft. Five teams passed on opportunity to pick Jagr, and amongst those drafted before him were Owen Nolan, Petr Nedved, Keith Primeau and Mike Ricci. All became good players, of varying degrees, in their own right. None became Jaromir Jagr.

Yet, the fact that they were not Jagr shouldn't be used as a point of criticism against them, much like similar comparisons shouldn't be against Jordan Staal. His deficiencies aren't that he's not Eric Staal, Jonathan Toews or Nicklas Backstrom. His deficiencies are that his offensive game has leveled off and, for a former Selke Trophy candidate, his defensive awareness often lacks.

Despite how many pseudo-scouts preach to the contrary today, the book on Staal is still open. Currently, he's playing at a 60+ point pace, though he won't reach it due to early-season injury problems. But it is a step in the right direction. For a player who had appeared to plateau, that's progress.

But, at this point, it's time to adjust our expectations for Jordan Staal. We should still look for more, but not too much more. Staal still has the potential to surprise Penguins fans. Let's simply hope that he does, rather than expect it.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.