Walking around Mellon Arena on game day, you’re bound to run into a lot of fans with an “87” on their back. You might see it in white, black, or even powder blue, but it’s no secret they came to see Sidney Crosby. Evgeni Malkin’s “71”, Sergei Gonchar’s “55”, and Marc-Andre Fluery’s “29” will make appearances, as well as current Penguin owner Mario Lemieux’s retired “66”.
What isn’t yet fully appreciated by fans, but is by the organization, is the contribution of No. 11, Jordan Staal.
In his third year, Staal seems to be the subject of trade rumors every deadline and every offseason. The fact that no moves have been made (and the Pens have had their share of needs), shows the expectations and the confidence that the Penguin front office has in their young third-liner.
Staal centers the third line between Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, and hasn’t put any eye-popping numbers into the record books. For a few reasons, the 20-year-old is “The other guy”.
Sidney Crosby is the center who wears the Captain’s “C”, and is the face of the entire league, not just the franchise. Evgeni Malkin is the center who leads the NHL in points, assists, even-strength points, and takeaways. Malkin is a leading candidate for the Hart trophy as MVP as well as the Art Ross trophy. This depth at center would put many very good NHL players on the third line in Pittsburgh.
Staal is also overlooked due to the fact he has two older brothers already in the league. Every fan of any NHL team knows of the Staal brothers from Thunder Bay, Ontario. Many could not match the appropriate first name to the correct team.
With the recent resurgence of the Penguins, there are new faces credited for the difference in performance. New coach Dan Bylsma is 12-1-3 going into this weekend, and has deservedly received a lot of credit for a more aggressive style, consistent lines bringing better chemistry (and execution), and more predictable ice time.
Sergei Gonchar was expected to make an impact upon returning from a shoulder injury, and has done just that. Gonchar’s puck handling, leadership, and command of an improving power play were sorely missed when the Pens were buried in 10th place in February.
The additions of Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin have improved the team’s toughness, puck control, and have brought a veteran presence. There is no statistic in the NHL for “ugly goals”. However, it is safe to say that Pittsburgh would have been near the bottom, if not last, in this fabricated statistic as of the middle of February.
With the new additions, the Pens not only have desperately needed depth at wing, but are now capable of scoring important, but unspectacular goals.
With Bylsma, Kunitz, Gonchar, and Guerin now on board, it has been very easy to miss the improvement of Staal. He has always had responsibility for killing penalties from a forward position, a job he has done very well in his three year career. This season, he has had the job of taking key defensive-zone faceoffs.
The noticeable change is that under Bylsma, Staal seems to have found a creativity with the puck and a willingness to drive to the crease that was not present under Michele Therrien. This has resulted in nine points in the last 11 games, and a plus seven rating over the same span.
Having a third line willing to take the puck to the net and put pressure on the opposition’s defense pays dividends in the third period, as the Penguins have been regularly out-shooting opponents in the third, another development of the Bylsma era.
Come playoff time, this offensive production will be what the Penguins will need to make a deep run, particularly on the road.
While opposing coaches are certainly aware of the offensive potential of the third line, they are still going to use the last substitution advantage to put defensive specialists against Crosby and Malkin, giving Staal the matchup advantage.
With play becoming more physical and an added emphasis on shot-blocking when the playoffs begin, there will inevitably be games where any team needs a third line to put the puck in the net. Staal, Kennedy, and Cooke are as capable of this as any team in the Eastern Conference, and maybe the NHL.
As hard as it is to share attention through a star heavy lineup, the city with three professional sports teams and three rivers needs to appreciate the three solid lines they have.
If they can stay together as expected, the third line could be responsible for the franchise’s third Stanley Cup sometime in the near future.