Penguins' Staal adapts to new linemates
Jordan Staal is filling in on the Penguins' second line while Evgeni Malkin recovers from a shoulder injury.
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Jordan Staal hasn't exactly spent his entire NHL career in the shadows.
There simply aren't many players in the game big enough, figuratively or otherwise, to cast a shadow that obscures a guy who is 6 feet 4, 220 pounds. And, having just turned 21, probably still growing.
But when the Penguins invested the second choice in the 2006 entry draft in Staal, he was grafted onto a depth chart already headlined by Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.
It's not only that those two were young centers, as Staal was. They were franchise-caliber talents who fate -- in the form of one draft lottery lost in 2004, and another won the next year -- had placed on the same team.
Staal? Poor guy. The thinking among personnel people when he broke into the league was that he likely couldn't hope for much more than to become one of the finest two-way players in the game.
Three-plus years later, that's looking like a pretty accurate assessment. Staal has matured into a force at both ends of the ice, someone who can kill penalties and play stifling defense while still making fairly regular, and sometimes spectacular, contributions to the offense.
He has spent most of this season working between Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy and is one of the primary reasons many regard that as the finest third line in the game.
"I think our line is just as good as any second line, the way we're playing and what we're doing," Staal said.
Maybe, but Staal's job description got a makeover last week, when Kennedy was knocked out of the lineup by an unspecified injury and Malkin was diagnosed with a strained right shoulder.
Although coach Dan Bylsma said "there was some consideration" given to leaving Staal with Cooke while Kennedy healed, he ultimately decided to slide him into Malkin's spot. That meant Staal not only had new wingers, Ruslan Fedotenko and Chris Bourque, but a revised role.
More ice time. More responsibility for generating offense. More work on the power play.
And while Staal didn't figure in any of the Penguins' four regulation-time goals during the past two games -- in fact, he's scoreless in the past five -- it's not because of a lack of minutes.
After averaging 17 1/2 minutes of ice time in the first 12 games, Staal logged 22 minutes and 50 seconds in their 4-3 shootout victory in Columbus Friday night, the first game Malkin missed.
Twenty-four hours later, he was called upon even more often, playing 24 minutes and 11 seconds in a 2-1 loss to Minnesota. Defensemen Kris Letang (25:15) and Alex Goligoski (24:48) were the only Penguins who played more.
Staal acknowledged that adapting to new linemates can take time, especially when he has had the same wingers for a while.
"I've been playing with [Kennedy and Cooke] for a long time," he said. "Obviously, every game when you're playing with new players, it's [a challenge] to get a feel for everyone."
It's not just the names on the sweaters that are different, either, because Fedotenko and Bourque do not play the same style as Staal's usual linemates.
"It's difficult to get used to, obviously," Staal said. "There's really not much to say. You just have to work through it, I guess."
While his current linemates' game is not what Staal is used to, he made it clear when he got the new assignment that he didn't plan to significantly alter his own.
"I'll keep playing the same way," he said.
Which is precisely what his teammates were hoping for.
"I don't think Jordan Staal, when he's put on a second line, is going to try to dance everyone out there," forward Mike Rupp said. "He plays a very effective game the way he plays it, and it's a very valuable game to have."
NOTES -- The Penguins, 11-3 in October, finished the month with a league-high 227 hits and were third in the NHL in blocked shots (136). ... The Penguins, coming off a stretch of three games in four days, did not practice yesterday but did fly to Anaheim to begin preparations for a game against the Ducks tomorrow.
First Published November 2, 2009 12:00 am