Lacing Up: Staal-ed Out in Pittsburgh: Farewell to Jordan
In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF Monday mornings. If you have any topics you would like to see us discuss, or if you would like to be a guest in our series, please let us know through the comments section below or on our Contact page, linked at the top of FF.
Joshua Neal: Well, Matt, now that we’ve handled the new arrivals to the Penguins lineup, it’s time to analyze the departures from it. Predictably so, our first exhibit will be departed Center Jordan Staal. A fan favorite, Staal was a big, dynamic two-way centerman who did a lot for this Penguin team since he arrived in 2006. The summer began with Shero making an attempt to lock Jordan up for 10 years. After news got out that Staal had rejected the contract offer, it was only a matter of days before we found out that Jordan had been traded to Carolina for Brandon Sutter, prospect Brian Dumoulin, and their seventh overall draft pick (which was used to take Derrick Pouliot). So Matt, I guess we begin by looking at what Staal gave us, and how we’ll look to adapt to his departure. Your thoughts?
Matt Paul: It’s interesting you called Staal a fan favorite, because I recall frequent backlash from many fans, media-types, and bloggers (including FF’s Mike Adams). Staal was polarizing for much of his tenure in Pittsburgh, but I think what we’re going to see once the season starts is a large dose of nostalgia from fans who realized he wasn’t as “bad” as they thought he was. I use that term relatively, though, as no one ever called him a bad hockey player, but rather an overhyped hockey player. What he brought to the table was something the Penguins hadn’t had since the days of Ron Francis: an elite two-way centerman. Of course, Staal is no Francis, but you get the point. As we mentioned in a previous “Lacing Up,” no one should be expecting Sutter to fill Staal’s shoes. That said, a healthy Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and James Neal will be more than enough to account for Staal’s offense, while Sutter’s defense could actually be an upgrade. Josh, I know you’re a Sutter fanboy, but let me ask you this: did the Penguins downgrade their roster, or will they be able to balance out the loss of Staal with other players stepping up?
Josh: Matt, I totally agree. Staal was polarizing, but for those who appreciated him, he was a big deal. In a way, Staal in similar impact-wise to a player like Francis. He filled a role which is very hard for teams to fill: the often underappreciated role of checking the opponent’s best line and still being expected to produce respectable offensive numbers. To answer your question, I think that if you’re speaking from a talent standpoint, the Penguins have definitely sacrificed in the short term. Staal was a fantastic, underappreciated two-way center. Perhaps he didn’t live up to the billing of his draft position (Niklas Backstrom, Phil Kessel, and Jonathan Toews were all drafted after he was), but Staal is quite simply more talented than Sutter. Did the Penguins downgrade the level of talent in their roster by trading Staal? Inevitably so. However, downgrading in talent to find the right fit is sometimes a move that can yield rewarding results. As we discussed, Staal was looking for a more offensive role (where he probably won’t meet as much criticism as he did in Pittsburgh) and Carolina was able to offer that in addition to the chance to play with his brother Eric. Sutter is the candidate to replace Jordan Staal’s position but not his role. We’ve discussed his impact. I think personnel-wise, the pieces are there to be as good or better as a defensive team, but it will take a committed change of system on Bylsma’s part as well. Matt, any other players you see taking on expanded defensive forward roles that will help to alleviate the loss of Staal?
Matt: Good question, and one I don’t have a real answer to, to be honest. Tanner Glass is a capable defensive forward, and while he doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional third liner, he likely will be utilized on the penalty kill. I could also see them increasing Joe Vitale’s role in his second season, though like Glass, he won’t be counted on for third line minutes. There’s also the possibility of giving Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin some time killing penalties. In general, though, it’s going to have to be a team effort to increase defensive awareness at even strength and attention to detail while down a man or two. But, after the team fell apart defensively late last season and in the series against the Flyers, that was going to be the case with or without Staal. The Penguins just developed too much of a Capital-esque free-wheeling style that isn’t conducive to playoff success. As strange as this sounds, do you think Staal’s desire to increase his offensive role might have been as much a player in this development as the return of Crosby from injury? And if so, does his replacement with Sutter nip this in the bud?
Josh: Matt, I think that makes a lot of sense. If I’m Jordan, I’d definitely feel the appeal to enter a new city with the offensive role he had been forced into in the absence of Crosby and Malkin when they were out for extended periods. Obviously, many people have tackled the fact that he will have the opportunity to play with Eric, but I think the draw of being viewed more as a scorer and a “main option” was just as much at play here. I’m not sure how going back to a more traditional third-line checking center will go with inserting Sutter. Obviously, I’m very excited to see, and I think simplifying the game will help the Penguins in a lot of ways, but we won’t know until we see the on-ice product. Of what we could get out of Carolina for Jordan, I think we got the best personnel in return that will fit what seems to be a bit of a system change and mentality adjustment in Pittsburgh. Personally, I’ll be rooting for Jordan to do well up until we see them playoff time, as I believe Carolina made a lot of good moves this offseason to put them back into the picture as a playoff team. Matt, any last words as we send Jordan off into the sunset?
Matt: These kinds of trades always tend to be fuzzy at first, but gain clarity as time goes on. As you said, it’s all about fit and role. Staal’s role has expanded over the years to the point that he outgrew the center-deep Penguins. In Carolina, despite their center-heavy roster, Staal will have an opportunity to flourish in a scoring role. Will that happen? Who knows? Likewise, in Pittsburgh, Sutter will be placed in a role that isn’t just important, but also admired by fans. Unlike many other cities, Pittsburgh fans love a good defensive effort almost as much as a good offensive effort. In the end, I feel this trade will benefit the Penguins by means of three solid defense-first additions. And as we’ve seen in the past, if nothing else, Shero could find a way to turn one or several of these players into offensive help, if needed.