The late Ashley Gallant was the originator of “Lacing Up,” and its reincarnation is in her honor. Each week, Matt Paul, Zach Boslett, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF.

Joining us this week is Mike Colligan. Mike is the Pittsburgh Penguins correspondent at TheHockeyWriters.com and an NHL analyst at Forbes SportsMoney.

Read some of his work here and his twitter can be followed here.

Our talk is quite long but I believe it is very well worth it to read.

Zach Boslett: Marc-Andre Fleury had an excellent season last year. Tyler Kennedy answered his critics with a 20 goal season. Pascal Dupuis continued to be an asset on the PK as well as chipping in offensively. James Neal is on pace for a million goals this season. Matt Niskanen has stepped up his game to an unprecedented level…

That only leaves Jordan Staal left on the usual whipping boy list but numbers wise he’s had a pretty good start to the season… What is it about Staal that makes Penguin fans so mad? Is he being held to an unfair standard? Help us understand Mike!

Mike Colligan I think part of the reason Staal is held to an unfair standard is his own doing. Staal exploded onto the scene his rookie year with 29 goals in limited playing time (under 15 minutes per game). He was a force in all facets of the game — penalty kill, powerplay, even strength — and his dominance at such a young age set the bar high. Penguins fans were wondering if he could someday score 35 goals, 40, more?

Staal has made great improvements in the defensive aspects of his game over the past five years, but it’s the statline that most fans focus on. No seasons with more than 22 goals. Only three shorthanded goals after recording seven in his rookie year alone. Pedestrian numbers on the powerplay despite ample opportunities. Fans look to the basic stats to tell them how a player’s career is progressing. Saying that Staal has stalled might even be an overstatement. Based on these offensive numbers, he’s regressed since that amazing rookie year.

Zach While to say that he is not as good at 23 as he was at 18 is absurd… but might that be the case offensively? I see a player whose hands, scoring ability and shot have not improved as he has matured and may have in fact deteriorated as his defensive game has blossomed. Staal scored many highlight reel goals as a rookie by beating defenseman 1-on-1 and getting himself into good scoring opportunities. Now when he tries to beat defenders, he loses the puck.

Recently, at least to me, it appears that Staal does not know how to play as a prolific offensive player. He always has his back to the goal – even on the power play.

In the game against Washington, Staal came on with the second power play unit in the second period for the last 0:45 seconds of a power play. He immediately got the puck and turned his back to the goal despite having plenty of room to make a pass, shot, or make a move towards the goal. By turning his back, he limited his options to pass the puck up the boards to Zybnek Michalek at the point or dump it down low. He ended up turning it over to Jeff Schultz when he attempted a lame backhand pass into the corner where Schultz was waiting.

Is it maybe that after having spent so much time as a shut down center he simply does not know how to play up to his offensive abilities? Is his grind it out mentality regardless of his skill set or situation part of the problem?

Mike The errors you highlight are certainly ones you’d expect out of a rookie, not from an intelligent Selke candidate.

I still wonder if Staal ever was a highly-skilled offensive center at any point in his hockey career. His season-high goal total in Junior hockey was just 28 which doesn’t project well to an elite scorer at the NHL level. I think scouts saw his size and the success of his brother Eric on the offensive end of the ice and assumed Jordan could be just as talented, if not better.

Most fans also look at salary and expect the highest-paid players to be the flashiest. With Crosby and Malkin injured, many expect Staal to carry the load. He’s not that type of player. Staal is a matchup center with the ability to consistently score 20+ goals (which isn’t too shabby from a player in that role…unless your name is Ryan Getzlaf or Kesler)

It’s also hard to get a read on how healthy Staal really is. He missed half of last season with injuries and never seemed to get his legs under him. This year he’s looked great some nights, on other nights he’s invisible. All we’ve heard for years is that Staal leads by example and hard work, not words. With leaders like Crosby, Malkin and Orpik out of the lineup, shouldn’t this be the time Staal really seizes a leadership role on and off the ice?

Zach I am glad you dropped the Kesler bomb. Many pro-Staal theorists compare Staal’s early career numbers to Kesler’s before Kesler’s offensive explosion of the past two seasons.

Kesler was often criticized for his weak shot, specifically his wrist shot. He then worked on it and turned it into an impressive weapon that allowed him to score 41 goals last year.

Staal has not shown much offensive improvement – especially his shot. Do you think that is an area Staal can realistically improve on? Sidney Crosby stayed after practice for hours and worked on his shot and now it is one of the best in the league. Why can’t Staal make a similar improvement?

Maybe he needs to start scoring from 45 feet to silence his critics?

While Staal has incredible value in all three zones, that value is not evident to casual fans and Staal-haters that only look at the box scores after the game.

Mike It’s tough to say. As you mentioned before, many of Staal’s impressive goals earlier in his career were the result of individual efforts — not necessarily picking corners on goaltenders.

Along the same lines, when Staal is mad, he seems to take his game to a level that few opponents in the NHL can handle. Not many players can bring an extremely determined work ethic to the ice every night over the course of an 82-game regular season, but Staal’s effort seems to go in spurts.

During his rookie year, he was fighting for a spot on the NHL roster and was determined to prove to the coaching staff that he belonged, even if he only got 10 minutes a night. He needs to manufacture that sense of urgency again. For Staal to truly become an elite player and competitor, he has to find a way to motivate himself on a nightly basis to take his game to that next level.

Zach I see consistent effort from Staal in the defensive zone and on the penalty kill – where few can match his reach, skill, and strength.

But I see inconsistent offense and unwillingness/inability to improve on faceoffs. I feel like this is where he needs to work on his game. It could really impact his future in Pittsburgh or elsewhere.

If he can become a 30-30 guy with excellent defensive skills he will command $5 million or more on the open market. If he stays how he is I think he gets re-signed at the same cap hit he has now.

What are you thoughts on the future of Staal, both as a player and whether that will be in Pittsburgh or not.

Mike Signing Staal to an extension could potentially be more difficult than signing Sidney Crosby. Next summer’s new CBA will obviously play a big role in the future of the team and the looks of the “next contracts” for the Penguins’ stars. Assuming a similar system remains in place with a slightly higher salary cap, Staal would definitely be able to make more on the open market than Shero will be willing/able to pay him.

A big factor to keep in mind is that Staal will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season. There’s a substantial difference between the value of RFA years vs UFA years in contract negotiations, for obvious reasons. Another team would have to surrender compensatory draft picks to poach an RFA from another team and therefore wouldn’t be willing to pay as much in salary as a UFA free to sign anywhere.

Staal will earn an actual salary of $4.5m this year and next. Since these are his RFA years, I would guess that his value as a UFA — assuming no improvement — is somewhere in the $5.5m range. (See comparable UFA salaries of Plekanec, Kesler; and future UFA salaries of Toews, Backstrom).

Based on our earlier discussion, it’s probably safe to assume Staal will improve as a player over the next two seasons. If Staal’s value rises to a $7m level, Shero won’t be able to afford upwards of $25-30m for his three star centers without sacrificing elsewhere in the lineup. From a big picture perspective, having so many elite players is a great problem to have as a GM.

In fact, I think Shero and his staff are far more prepared for the inevitable cap crunch than the Chicago Blackhawks of a few years ago. Even recent contract negotiations with Kennedy, Dupuis, Talbot, and most recently Kunitz were handled with a long-term perspective in mind.

Zach And one last question for you Mike… what do you see Staal’s production sitting at for this year and let’s say his contract year where you have him potentially leaving the Penguins?

Mike Staal’s near-term future might depend on how Coach Bylsma decides to use him. When (or if) the Penguins are ever healthy, will Staal still be used in a third-line role or will Bylsma experiment with him on Crosby or Malkin’s line? No team in the NHL can match the Penguins depth at center when the three are all in the lineup, but the Penguins need to see what Staal can do alongside big scorers before they commit the type of money to him that we talked about earlier.

If Staal can have success on a top line I think he can easily surpass 60 points this year or next. If he remains the Penguins matchup center and biggest penalty killer, he won’t have the offensive opportunities to reach that level and will settle into a 55-point ceiling for the next two years.