Jordan Staal, right, defends against his brother, the Hurricanes' Eric Staal Saturday.
Click photo for larger image.
Lately, it seems that anyone with even a passing interest in the Penguins is focused on -- if not consumed by -- the team's plans for rookie center Jordan Staal.
Will the Penguins send him back to his junior club after a game Saturday in Philadelphia? Commit to keeping him on the major-league roster for the entire season? Defer a decision until Staal approaches the 40-game milestone that would trigger his seven-year clock for unrestricted free agency?
Anything is possible, and every conceivable move could be justified.
Intriguing as it all is, not everyone has become immersed in it.
Staal, for example.
After a get-loose-and-have-laughs workout -- the Penguins' payoff for their first three-game winning streak since 2004 -- at the Island Sports Center yesterday, he said he isn't dwelling on which short-term course his career will take.
"I haven't really thought about it a whole lot, at all," Staal said.
Of course, he can't ignore it entirely. Not when some member of the media or public asks him about it roughly three times per minute during every waking hour.
The game Saturday is significant, because it will be Staal's ninth with the Penguins. If they use him beyond that, the first year of his three-year entry level contract will kick in.
The next deadline of consequence would be the 40-game cutoff for earning an "accrued season." Under the NHL's current labor agreement, Staal will be eligible for unrestricted free agency after getting seven of those.
If Staal is with the Penguins after 40 games, the only reason to return him to the Ontario Hockey League would be if his on-ice performance warranted it, which certainly hasn't been the case yet.
While the team's decision-makers steadfastly refuse to divulge any hint of their plans for Staal -- general manager Ray Shero deftly avoided tipping his hand again yesterday -- there has been a groundswell of support, in and around the organization, for keeping Staal in the NHL, at least for the foreseeable future.
That would have been nearly unthinkable before training camp last month. Even after Staal had an excellent preseason, it appeared to be highly unlikely and. as recently as a week ago, the rationale for returning him to Peterborough was compelling.
But Staal's superb play, especially while killing-penalties, in the first eight games is impossible to ignore. Particularly in the context of the Penguins' 5-3 start, which has them atop the Atlantic Division for the first time in nearly four years.
While the 2006-07 season remains in its embryonic stage, the Penguins have looked capable of contending for their first playoff berth since 2001. If keeping Staal would help them to achieve that goal, some would argue that whatever long-range sacrifice is required -- whether it's burning a year off his contract or having him be eligible for unrestricted free agency at 25 -- would be worthwhile.
Shero declined to say what weight key variables in the Staal case will be given, saying that he will discuss them after a decision has been announced.
He added that "all the decisions with Jordan come down to, 'What is best for him? What is best for us?' " But there are some issues management might well consider in coming weeks if it opts against returning Staal to Peterborough after the game Saturday. To wit:
What are the chances that Staal will be one of those good young players who plays well for 10 or 15 or 20 games, then all but disappears? Staal doesn't look like a threat to do that, but no one it happens to ever does while they're playing to their potential.
How significant of a role will Staal fill this season? He's on the second line at the moment, but was on the No. 4 unit until Ryan Malone's forearm was broken, and there's no guarantee he won't end up back there. What should the Penguins be willing to give up if he's cast as a penalty-killer and fourth-liner?
How is the Penguins' season going? If, as midseason approaches, they look to be legitimate playoff contenders -- and Staal has helped to make them that -- it would make sense to keep him for the season. If they're plodding along behind the pack, Staal's presence might not be enough to save them.
Shero acknowledged the intense public interest in Staal's case, but said it will not influence his decision.
"I don't think it can," he said. "Whether it's on Jordan Staal or whether it's on [fellow rookie] Kris Letang or whether it's on putting a guy on waivers or a trade, the popular choice is not always the best.
"Whether it goes on a decision on a player like this or a trade or a free-agent signing, I can't worry about what the public reaction is going to be."Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
Jordan Staal celebrates his second-period goal against the Blue Jackets Saturday at Mellon Arena.
Click photo for larger image.
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .