Cook: Penguins must win; Staal must stay
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Aren't you getting tired of your sports teams asking you to be patient because they're building something special for the future?
A future that never seems to get here?
The Pirates have been wasting our time for 14 years. They lost 95 games this season, but they insist the future is bright because of their young starting pitchers. Is it just me or is this the third or fourth group of young starters that is going to lead the team to the Promised Land?
The Penguins also have violated our sacred trust, albeit for a shorter time. When they finished in last place in 2002, '03 and '04, they promised to be better once the NHL's new economics kicked in. Well, the league's work stoppage came and went and a season was wiped out for the sake of a workable financial agreement between the owners and players. The Penguins finished last again last season.
Are you thinking what I'm thinking?
We might be dead before the future gets here.
That morbid thought brings us to Penguins center Jordan Staal. Do you give a darn about what happens with him three years from now or seven years from now? Or do you just care about what he can do for the team in Philadelphia tomorrow night against the Flyers?
This is just a guess ...
The present takes precedence, right?
That's why Penguins management will be making a horrible mistake if it sends Staal back to his junior team next week to delay the clock starting on his three-year entry level contract and push back his eligibility for restricted free agency to spring 2010. Actually, that no longer even seems like a possibility. Penguins general manager Ray Shero and coach Michel Therrien are too smart.
For one thing, they know they probably won't have jobs in '10 if the team doesn't start winning consistently.
Staal has done his part to show the Penguins' future really might not be that far off, helping them to a surprising 5-3 start by playing much better than anyone could expect of a kid just past his 18th birthday. For another thing, Shero and Therrien know they are in the business of rewarding excellence, not demoting it. Staal shares the team lead with Evgeni Malkin and Michel Ouellet with four goals, one more than the great Sidney Crosby. It would send a lousy message to the other players if management sent Staal back for long-term economic reasons.
You know, like it sent a rotten message last season when former general manager Craig Patrick tried to keep his best goaltender -- Marc-Andre Fleury -- in the minors so the Penguins wouldn't have to pay him nearly $3 million in bonuses That turned out well, didn't it?
No, Staal has to stay.
It might be different if Staal wasn't going to get the minutes it will take for him to develop into a star. He averaged about 12 minutes a game in the first seven games, getting much of his time as a penalty-killer, a job at which he clearly excels. Three short-handed goals certainly qualifies as excelling.
Then, left winger Ryan Malone went out with a broken left forearm. That prompted Therrien to put Malkin in Malone's spot on the first line with center Crosby and Colby Armstrong, opening a spot for Staal as the second-line center. Staal got 161/2 minutes in the 4-2 win Tuesday night against the New Jersey Devils, scored a goal, was on the ice for one by Nils Ekman and finished plus-2.
That's called answering the challenge.
Staal should get plenty of time until Malone comes back or Therrien decides he wants to use Malkin at center -- his best position -- and anchor him on a potent second line. Ordinarily, the Penguins would be better served to have two great lines instead of one. But Malkin and Crosby are anything but ordinary. Who's to say they won't continue to make the magic they did in that win against the Devils? Malkin, in just four games, has shown he can be dangerous anywhere on the ice.
A better question:
Who's to say Staal can't be the center on a dynamic second line?
The Penguins owe it to themselves and their fans to find out.
Sure, it would be nice if the team could stagger the big raises it will have to give Crosby, Malkin and Staal as restricted free agents. That would make life so much easier under the NHL's new salary cup. Crosby's raise comes due after next season, Malkin's in the spring of '09. If Staal stays with the team beyond the game tomorrow night, his contract also will be up in '09.
It also would be nice if the Penguins could delay Staal's eligibility for unrestricted free agency by a year, to the spring of '14. This season won't count as one of the seven he needs for free agency unless he is with the team for more than 39 games. That means Shero and Therrien can keep him until early January before having to send him back to juniors.
But isn't it more important that the Penguins try to win now?
If Staal can help them do it, he needs to stay all season.
We won't hold it against management in 2013.
First Published October 27, 2006 12:00 am