Staal shifts Penguins offense into high gear

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SUNRISE, Fla. -- It always has seemed like just a matter of time until Jordan Staal of the Penguins wins a Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward.

He's a key member of one of the league's elite penalty-killing units and routinely is matched against -- and neutralizes -- opposing teams' top lines.

Staal is a virtual prototype of a shutdown center, with qualities -- he's big, mobile and strong and has good instincts -- that make him a natural for the Selke.

That Staal could thrive in such a role was apparent before the Penguins selected him with the second choice in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. What wasn't so evident until the past month or so was just how much of an offensive force he can be at this level.

Odds are that if Staal ends up with a league trophy on his mantle, it's going to be a Selke, not an Art Ross, but he has been showing up on the score sheet with striking regularity this season.

Staal enters the Penguins game at 7:38 p.m. today at Florida with five points in the past three games, a surge that has run his 17-game totals to nine goals and six assists.

That puts him on pace to rack up 42 goals and 28 assists if his games-missed total this season stays at two. His single-season bests are 29 goals, 28 assists and 49 points.

Staal said there is no explanation for his offensive productivity through the first quarter of the season -- "I'm just feeling comfortable"-- but just about everyone who works with him points to Staal's upgraded belief in his abilities.

"He's got more confidence in himself now when he gets the puck in scoring areas," said assistant coach Tony Granato, who works with the forwards. "He expects to score when he gets the puck in scoring areas. I think he realizes that he's a guy who can be an elite offensive player.

"He always would have to get four or five chances to think he could score a goal. Now, he thinks he can get one and score a goal. That's a big difference."

It's safe to assume that the increase in Staal's offensive output is linked, at least in part, to the injuries that have prevented Sidney Crosby from dressing for any games this season and have limited Evgeni Malkin to 12 appearances in the first 19 games.

Gifted and dynamic as Crosby and Malkin are, neither is talented enough to score or set up goals while wearing a suit and street shoes. Their absences compelled coach Dan Bylsma to deploy Staal in more offensive situations than he otherwise would have, and Staal has responded as well as the coaching staff could have hoped.

Maybe better.

"Each of those guys is pretty much a point-a-game [producer], so there's obviously a hole there that needs to be filled, and each player in the room knows that," Staal said. "On the offensive side of the puck, an opportunity comes and you get the call. It's a good opportunity for me."

Staal's offensive game isn't as refined as that of Crosby or Malkin, and he doesn't pretend that it is. That's why he's far more likely to try to bulldoze past a defender than dance around him.

"If he's got the puck on his stick, he's learned that it's hard to take it off a guy his size," left winger Chris Kunitz said. "He's really developed a shot from in close, being able to use his body to hold people off."

Although Staal, 23, has added some polish to his offensive game since breaking into the NHL, his basic style is the same one he played before joining the Penguins. Not very subtle, to be sure, but pretty effective.

Especially now that he's capitalizing on the opportunities he generates.

"He's always been a horse, as far as creating offensive chances and making good things happen for your team," Granato said. "This year, he's finding ways to finish."

Granato went on to suggest that piling up points the way Staal has seems to be having a positive impact on other facets of his game, citing Staal's performance on faceoffs.

While his 47.9 percent success rate obviously leaves ample room for improvement, Staal's approach to handling draws appears to have changed.

"He's becoming more of an aggressive faceoff taker," Granato said. "And he's gaining more confidence and expecting to win the draws when he's out there instead of hoping to win them."

Just as he has been scoring on shots that he once only hoped would make it into the net. Not that Staal is willing to see if the momentum of his first quarter is enough to carry him through an entire year.

"I've gotten a good start, but it's obviously a long season and I want to keep doing what I'm doing."

Next

• Game: Penguins at Florida Panthers.

• When: 7:38 p.m. today.

• TV: Root Sports.


For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter @molinaripg.


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