Jordan Staal celebrates his second goal of the game against New Jersey last Saturday, part of a hot start in which he has six goals and three assists through 11 games to tie James Neal for the team lead in points.
By Shelly Anderson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
How do you measure Jordan Staal?
By height, he's 6 feet 4.
By his place in the Penguins lineup, he's a third-line center. Unless the team is experimenting with him as a second-line winger. Or unless one or both of the centers ahead of him are hurt as has been the case the past several months.
By points, he is tied with winger James Neal for the team lead with nine going into the home game tonight against the New York Islanders.
All those things offer tangible evidence of Staal's value, and there is more: Two of his six goals have come on the power play, and his .250 shooting percentage is the best on the team.
None of that captures the full scope of his game, which includes the keen defensive and penalty-killing skills he demonstrated even before he broke into the NHL as an 18-year-old in 2006-07. Or the improvement he has shown in other areas that don't show up on score sheets or statistically.
Matchup: Penguins vs. New York Islanders, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
TV/Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Evgeni Nabokov for Islanders.
Penguins: Beat Islanders, 3-0, Tuesday on road for fourth win in row. ... Five Penguins defensemen combined for 17 blocked shots Tuesday. ... James Neal led NHL in shots, 44, before the games Wednesday night.
Islanders: Have lost three games in a row. ... Have been shut out past two games in Pittsburgh. ... Won 30 of 55 faceoffs (55 percent) Tuesday.
Hidden stat: Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik has 12 points against Islanders in his career, more than against any other team.
"It's still early, but, obviously, I'm feeling good," Staal said Wednesday after practice at Consol Energy Center.
"I don't know if my game's evolving or not, but I'm definitely feeling good about where I am and what I'm doing out there. I'm happy the puck's going in for me right now."
It could be that, at 23, he simply is rounding the turn and chugging toward the prime of his career. Staal shrugged at such a notion.
"The league's gotten younger, so I don't know if the prime has gotten younger," he said.
After being drafted second overall in '06, Staal might have heaped unrealistic expectations on himself by scoring 29 goals, seven of them short-handed, as a rookie.
He had 42 points his first season, topped since then with back-to-back 49-point seasons, but he hasn't equaled his rookie goal total. In some critics' eyes, he wasn't showing the improvement that merited a No. 2 draft slot, especially since the Penguins took him ahead of offensive talents such as Chicago's Jonathan Toews and Washington's Nicklas Backstrom.
Some of that could stem from taking a narrow view of Staal based only on offense. Or from unrealistic comparisons with superstar centers, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
A broader look shows improvement by Staal beyond goals.
He was a Selke Trophy finalist as the NHL's top two-way forward in '10 and might have been again if his first 40 games of '10-11 hadn't been wiped out by foot and hand injuries.
But now he is scoring, leaving any lingering critics high and dry.
"I don't think that just happens because you get older," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said of Staal's development. "He's stronger. His skating is a factor this year. It's been outstanding.
"He's been working to realize how big and strong he is with the puck in all areas of the ice, both defensively and offensively. You see him now create separation in the defensive zone, walking away from people [with the puck], and holding onto the puck in the offensive zone, using his skating and size to be able to make plays."
The development is wide-ranging. Take faceoffs. Staal takes them regularly as a center and was, to put it nicely, inconsistent his first several seasons. Through 11 games this season, he is winning 51.4 percent of his draws. That's up from 49.6 percent last season, a significant jump.
"The more faceoffs you take, the better you're going to get," Staal said. "As a team, we try to focus on being an elite team on draws. I've changed a few things, just trying some new things, going to my backhand more, things like that. Nothing really crazy."
But it is another example of Staal improving over time. There's no telling whether he will continue or increase his scoring pace even if the bulk of his game improves. He is on pace to score more than 40 goals.
"I'll take a hundred goals if I can," Staal said.
Reminded that he does have 100, having notched that career milestone last week with two goals against New Jersey, Staal smiled.
"Yeah, I do," he said. "In one season would be nice, though."
That would be a record feat, but surely Staal has a number in mind. Perhaps 30 to eclipse his rookie total? Or 40, or 50?
"I think every player has, at some point, a goal in their mind, but, uh, um, I'm not telling you," he said.