As the 2008-09 season draws nearer, it brings forward the reality that budding star Jordan Staal likely won’t be signing a new contract until next summer.

He can’t be blamed, as his underwhelming season in 2007-08 — at least offensively — leaves him with little bargaining power, even though he scored 29 goals as an rookie two years ago.

His first year saw him climb the depth chart and beat the odds, eventually flanking the left side of Evgeni Malkin’s line, helping to pad his stats; however, last season, he found himself buried on the third line.

“(Coach Michel Therrien) believe(d) it (was) a better fit at center for me and we were winning games,” Staal said to Kevin Allen of the USA Today regarding his role last season. “But for my future I believe I’m a top six guy and I want to play up there. I want to fit somewhere in that puzzle. Hopefully I can stick around in Pittsburgh and find a good spot.”

It’s understandable that Staal wants to play a larger role in the NHL. He’s proven he can score — even if he was snake bitten the majority of last season — and he’s a highly-touted prospect in a well-respected hockey family.

His older brother Eric is the franchise player in Carolina, yet Jordan is nothing more than the third wheel in Pittsburgh.

Staal’s role on the team largely will be determined by his play in training camp, not his natural position of center.

If he proves his rookie season scoring ability was not a fluke, don’t be surprised to see the “Gronk” once again on Malkin’s wing, filling the power role left vacant by Ryan Malone.

If he remains snake-bitten, he’ll return to the third line as a shut-down center, whose offense is secondary to his defense.

By the sounds of things, Staal’s longterm future in Pittsburgh hinges on this season. If he can’t cut it on one of the top-two lines, he very well might request a trade to a team with less center depth and an open spot on one of the top-two lines.