Jordan Staal was easily one of the most important Penguins in the Stanley Cup finals.
His short-handed goal in Game Four may have been the single most important goal of the series, with the goal he notched in Game Six coming in a close second.
But the majority of his work is recorded not in goals scored, but rather in what he brings to the table as an outstanding defensive presence on the Penguins’ third line.
But watching the Penguins’ cap situation unfold, I’m wondering if the Penguins might be wise to trade him now (when his trade value may be at its highest) before they are forced to trade him later when they have less flexibility.
Is a superb third line center a luxury the Penguins can continue to afford?
I really like Staal. He is a great team player who has never uttered a single word of complaint about playing behind the two best centers in the league.
He has a non-stop motor and works hard on every shift, whether he is trying to keep the other team's top scorers off the board or trying to kill a penalty. He also logs a ton of minutes.
But with both Crosby and Malkin now counting $8.7 million against the salary cap, I’m not sure the Penguins really have the flexibility to keep a $4 million center on their third line without a significant impact on one of their top two lines.
At this point in his career, Staal is a second line center talent playing on a third line. At 20 years of age, he has the potential to develop into a first line anchor.
That means he may already be leaving a lot of money on the table. His brother, Eric, earns a salary ($8.25 million) in the Crosby/Malkin range, showing once again how underpaid the two are for the Penguins.
As a second line center, Staal would likely warrant a salary north of $5 million.
I also wonder how happy he will be playing for the Penguins long-term, seeing as his name is already etched on the Cup—he might be happier as a front line leader for another franchise.
At his young age, Staal has incredible upside and has only begun to show what he is capable of doing in this league.
Plenty of teams would love to have him on their roster. He would likely draw plenty of interest if the Penguins looked to trade him, likely netting a good player in return—probably a winger, and at least one solid developmental prospect or high draft pick.
Why do I think the Penguins should consider moving one of their best young players?
Because I think they are going to have a hard time finding high quality wingmen to pair with either Crosby or Malkin, who they can fit under the salary cap.
A good, proven wingman in the prime of his career typically earns at least $4 million, which is actually on the low side. The Penguins will struggle to pay any of their wingmen that kind of money while investing so much at the center position.
Out of their current crop of free agents, they will likely have to choose between bringing back Bill Guerin or Ruslan Fedotenko. My money is on Guerin returning for less than his market value to play a full season as Sidney Crosby’s top wingman.
That leaves a big hole on Malkin’s wing, which will likely be filled by a high profile AHL prospect—perhaps Janne Pesonen.
Staal’s salary is actually a secondary problem.
Chris Kunitz is scheduled to count nearly as much against the cap this year and is also a player the Penguins may look to trade. But he doesn’t hold the same value as Staal does, and would likely net less in return.
I would not be surprised if Ray Shero, the Penguins' general manager, looks to move Kunitz to free up some room.
Another option would be to sacrifice salary at the defenseman position, but the Penguins already trail much of the league in the overall amount they are paying their blueliners with two of their defenders, Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill, already likely to be wearing different color jerseys for the 2009-2010 season.
So, this isn’t a viable long-term option.
The Penguins may consider shedding Sergei Gonchar’s $5 million salary, but that’s not likely to factor into their thinking this year. The Penguins were clearly a better team with Gonchar in the lineup, especially on the power play.
But with Gonchar becoming an unrestricted free agent after this season, this may be his last season as a Penguin.
The fulcrum of the debate is whether the Penguins should look to improve their top two lines at the expense of their third line, or continue to try and field three quality lines.
Now that Malkin is earning closer to his worth, can the team retain two outstanding scoring top lines while keeping Staal in the fold?
I’m not sure of the answer to that question, but I don’t think they will fully benefit from the incredible talents of Crosby and Malkin unless the two players have at least one very good forward playing beside them. This is especially true for Crosby, who excels as a setup guy.
Any forward playing besides these two guys is going to look better than they really are, due to the tremendous talents of their center man.
Regardless of who was penciled into the lineup next to Mario Lemieux in his prime, those players always became instantly better. That same phenomenon is certainly in play with both Crosby and Malkin.
But there is a comparative effect.
While any winger slotted next to Sid or Geno will outproduce their talent level, it will be in comparison to their own ability level, making good players look great and average players look good.
During last offseason, the Penguins clearly seemed to be trending towards trying to focus on their two top lines at the expense of Staal. That was Option A.
If Marian Hossa had accepted the long-term contract he was offered, there is no way the Penguins could have kept Staal onboard beyond this past season. No amount of crazy cap math could have produced that result.
But the Penguins just won the Stanley Cup with Option B, by relying on three outstanding centers and a bunch of good, but not necessarily elite or high-priced, wingers.
The caveat is that they were able to pull off that strategy before Geno's salary peaked.
I’m guessing the Penguins try and continue with an Option B approach, but would not be surprised if Shero isn’t at least considering trying to move Staal.