Getting Jordan Staal's name on his next contract is not the Penguins' most pressing concern at the moment.
It shouldn't be, either.
Not when they've lost two consecutive games and trail the Atlantic Division-leading New York Rangers by five points just nine days after opening the season.
Especially when, for the final 45 minutes or so of their 2-1 overtime loss to New Jersey at Mellon Arena Saturday, the Penguins performed with the focus and fury that could reasonably be expected of a group of heavily sedated sleepwalkers.
Correcting all of that -- and starting to do it no later than tomorrow night, when Philadelphia visits at 7:38 p.m. -- has far more urgency than negotiating a contract to follow one that won't expire for about 81/2 months.
"We'll sit down at some point and see where we are, compare notes," general manager Ray Shero said. "But the time just isn't now."
Still, Staal isn't just another guy whose contract runs out next summer. (The Penguins have 13 of those on their NHL payroll at the moment.)
He is the one member of their nucleus of exceptional young players whose services have not been locked up for an extended period. The other members of that group -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Ryan Whitney -- are under contract through the 2012-13 season, or longer.
The average value of those deals: Whitney, $4 million; Fleury, $5 million; Crosby and Malkin, $8.7 million each. Staal, conversely, still is on his entry-level contract and receives $850,000 in base pay, although his salary-cap hit, which reflects potential bonus earnings over the life of the deal, is $2.2 million.
Staal's next contract figures to hoist him into the Whitney-Fleury neighborhood, although a number of variables, including his offensive output this season, will have a major impact on precisely what he earns in the future,
Fact is, Staal did not actively pursue a new contract this summer, at least in part, because of his relatively modest statistics -- 12 goals and 16 assists in 82 games -- last season.
Staal has two points, both assists, in the first three games of 2008-09, and is settling into a role as second-line left winger where he can reasonably expect to put up respectable numbers.
He is a center by trade, but also wants to be a top-six forward. With Crosby and Malkin already in the middle, Staal's only chance of filling such a role was to move to the wing, where he had labored previously and professes to be comfortable.
"I kind of figured that [a move was necessary], coming through the middle with the guys we've got," he said. "It's something I'm willing to do if I want to win. I want to be part of this team and win games."
Staal has, for the most part, inherited the duties handled a year ago by Ryan Malone. Not only as Malkin's linemate, but as the guy assigned to hover near the front of the net on the No. 1 power-play unit.
Staal is 6 feet 4, 220 pounds, so the punishment that comes with staking out space near the opponent's crease doesn't faze him -- "I'm a big guy," he said. "I can handle myself." -- and he believes he is capable of at least matching the 27 goals and 24 assists Malone accumulated last season.
"I hope so, if not better," he said. "My goal is to put up some numbers this year. I feel comfortable and feel ready to do it. It's just a matter of going out and doing it."
Of course, if Staal can do that -- and if he doesn't have a new contract before July 1 -- another club might be tempted to offer him a generous contract. The Penguins would have the ability to match it, since Staal would be a restricted free agent, but doing so could cause salary-cap problems for a team that figures to be flirting with the ceiling again.
Staal is adamant that he wants to remain with the Penguins. "When you're winning, there's no better feeling," he said. "I want to be on a winning team and I want to be part of this organization, there's no question about it."
But economic realities sometimes force clubs and players to make unpleasant decisions.
Shero has no reservations about negotiating during the season and believes that reaching an agreement with Staal won't require protracted talks. Still, he acknowledged there are no guarantees.
"I'm optimistic that things with Jordan will work out, but we'll just have to wait and see, and go from there," he said. "The way we've left it, if it's meant to be, it will work out quickly [once negotiations begin]. It wouldn't be something that drags out.
"It will be addressed before [July 1]. Whether it will be completed before then is another matter."
Dave Molinari can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published October 13, 2008 4:00 AM