While the 2008-2009 NHL season is still very young, Jordan Staal is already showing up on Pittsburgh's Amber Alert on a regular basis.
In seven games this season, Staal has posted only two assists and has a plus/minus rating of minus-2.
When Staal broke into the league two years ago it seemed that the Penguins would boast the best combination of center ice men in the NHL for a long time to come. Staal recorded 29 goals and 42 points in his rookie campaign, including a rookie record of nine shorthanded goals.
The future looked promising for the budding 18 year old star from Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Then came the '07—'08 season, and with it Staal's "sophomore slump". Staal scored just 12 goals and recorded 28 points in the regular season, but did tally six goals in the playoffs.
Sophomore slumps are usually tolerated, but what about junior jokes? That is exactly what Jordan Staal has become this season for the Pens.
Make no mistake about it, Staal's reliability in the defensive zone is, well at least was, an extremely valuable asset to the Penguins' team. However, so far this season it seems that Staal has forgotten how to back-check.
Moving from his natural center position to the left wing on the Penguins' second line might have something to do with Staal's decreased production on the defensive side of the puck, but it is not an excuse for his lackluster back-checking efforts and slower-than-molasses speed of skating.
When Penguins' head coach Michel Therrien opted to reunite Crosby and Malkin on the Penguins' first line two games ago, Staal returned to his natural center position on the second line, where he was flanked by Petr Sykora and Ruslan Fedotenko.
Now, it's no secret that Sykora isn't exactly among the fastest skaters in the league, but he makes up for it by managing to be in great position on both ends of the ice. Sykora's slow skating combined with Staal's disinterest in playing defense has resulted in the opposition scoring goals on a regular basis when the Penguins' second line is on the ice.
My problem with Jordan Staal is not that he hasn't scored 10 goals in seven games this season, or even that he hasn't shown the determination that he did two seasons ago. My problem with Jordan Staal is that he has not realized that with increased ice time and responsibility must come increased determination and production.
This isn't to say that if Staal doesn't score 30 goals this season he will be a disappointment. This is only to say that his level of play must elevate in order for him to be deemed worthy of seeing a top-six forward's amount of ice time.
The place for Jordan Staal is not on the Penguins' first two lines. The place for him in the Penguins' lineup is filling the role of third line center, a role that he played when he enjoyed one of the best rookie seasons in recent history two years ago.
Staal may want an increased role on this team, but he is not ready for it. This fact has been clearly evident by his play thus far this year.
The kid is still only 20 years old, and while the Penguins boast a host of young talent, Staal might need to be eased into a more responsible role rather than thrown to the wolves by centering the second line in just his third full NHL season.
Staal has continued to improve on the penalty kill, but the determination that led him to score nine shorthanded goals in his rookie season has all but disappeared. He still blocks a lot of shots from the point and is great at getting the puck out of the zone quickly, but he seems hesitant to take the initiative to create shorthanded offense. Perhaps this is because he feels like he no longer has anything to prove, a feeling that was absent during his rookie campaign.
Staal is in the final year of his three-year rookie contract and is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. I'm sure there are a lot of teams around the league that would be willing to trade a proven superstar for a young, up-and-coming forward like Staal at the trade deadline.
This article is not to say that I am throwing in the towel on Staal, but it is to say that I am throwing up the red flag. If Staal doesn't revert back to his rookie form sometime in the near future, you have to believe that Ray Shero won't hesitate to shop the young forward, along with veteran defenseman Darryl Sydor, at the trade deadline.
As of right now, I'd take the much more determined and harder working Tyler Kennedy on the Penguins' second line over Jordan "I'm skating in molasses" Staal any day of the week.
There is certainly time for Staal to turn his season around, but it's not going to happen if he continues to play an unmotivated game of going through the motions rather than earning his spot among the Penguins' top six forwards.