In 2006-2007, everyone expected Evgeni Malkin to come to Pittsburgh and have a stellar rookie campaign. No one expected to see the rapid emergence of Jordan Staal onto the hockey scene.
Kept up with Kris Letang for 10 games from his junior team; the Peterborough Petes, he was going to be given a look-see to grade his NHL readiness. By the end of those 10 games, he'd scored five goals, including three shorthanded (two in one game).
His uncanny defensive prowess for an 18-year-old combined with his long reach, assured him a spot on the permanent roster. While Kris Letang went back to juniors, Jordan Staal was there to stay. Partnered throughout the season with Malkin, he amassed 29 goals and 13 assists and was runner-up for Rookie of the Year to his linemate.
Heading into 2007-2008, big things were expected of Staal. He was placed on Crosby's wing after the acquisition of Petr Sykora filled the need for a scoring winger on Malkin's line. Some fans were thinking of 40 goals for the season playing alongside the previous year's MVP and Art Ross winner.
Things didn't go as planned. After 24 games, at the start of December, he had scored a total of two goals and netted three assists. The dreaded "sophomore jinx" was hung around his shoulders as he was dropped back to third line duty.
He would go on to thrive on the third line, playing a defensively responsible game alongside rotating wingers and his time on the penalty kill continued to remain steadily high. While his offensive game wasn't there through December, his defense continued to become stronger.
By the end of the season, he anchored his own line extremely effectively. A third line that would eventually pot 31 goals for the year between four or five different players. Many GMs would love to have a third line contribute as much.
Even through his bad start, Staal finished up the season scoring 12 goals and helping on 16 others. A total of 23 points in 58 games is not bad for a 19-year-old, nor for a third-line center on a team infected with injuries throughout the year.
As a result, there's talk of what to do with Staal coming into the 2008-2009 season.
Due to free agency and signings, there would seem to be a lack of top-six wingers. Right now, the top five are filled out by Crosby, Miroslav Satan, Malkin, Ruslan Fedotenko, and Sykora. The departure of Ryan Malone leaves a lack of physical presence that made the "Steel City Line" of Malone-Malkin-Sykora (who carried the team when Crosby went down) so effective.
You have Jordan Staal. What do you do?
There are two camps with this thinking:
1. Put Fedotenko on Sid's left and move Staal to the left of Malkin
Malkin's game is much more suited for Staal than Crosby. The reason Staal wasn't effective on Sid's line is Sid's speed. While Staal is deceptively fast, he's by no means swift of foot. Malkin's Lemieux-like ability to slow the game down suits Staal, which is why he had such success in his rookie season.
2. Keep Staal centering his own line
This serves two distinct purposes, one short term and one long term.
The short term: It gives the Penguins depth down the middle that is hard to be matched by any other team in the NHL. Crosby, Malkin, Staal is group of centers most teams would love to have on their payroll. Staal's defensive prowess makes him the perfect shutdown line center. This allows the third line to be able to go against any first line in the NHL and shut them down with relative ease.
The long term: It forces Staal to focus on his abilities as a center that need addressing, most importantly his playmaking abilities. His assist totals have been very unimpressive, as has been his passing in general.
While he can go to the front of the net to tap a puck in, it's hard to count on him to make the pass to set up a winger. Putting him as center of his own line so he doesn't rely on Malkin to create the plays will benefit him and the Pens.
He slightly improved from year one to year two with assists (13 to 16), and in the playoffs had some hot streaks where he was able to put everything together. If kept on his own line to grow with the same linemates, his abilities will fall into place.
While, in the end, it's entirely up to the coaching staff as to what will happen to Staal, perhaps the best interest of the team in the long and short term is keeping him on the ice centering his own line. Once his playmaking improves to where he can notch around 25 assists or so with third line talent—if Malkin needs a winger, I say make it so.
They would be even more dangerous as a duo (or trio if the chemistry with Sykora sticks). A one-two punch of anyone, Crosby, anyone and Staal, Malkin, Sykora could push the record books for goals scored.
At 19 years old, he's already got a bright future ahead of him. His development this year is crucial to how bright it is. Here's hoping that what ever is done is the correct decision when all is finished.