September 10, 2009, marked for Jordan Staal more than that coveted “legal” age of 21. He got to tour the White House in Washington, D.C., meeting the President as part of the Stanley Cup trimmings. Fittingly, Sunday’s last pre-season game for the Penguins was against the Detroit Red Wings in Detroit, and while the Pens lost, something was markedly different about the young Mr. Staal.
Watching him for 60 minutes in this game, he carried himself more confidently. Maybe it’s the “A” on his sweater. Maybe it’s the Stanley Cup win under his belt in a series where many hockey experts attribute Pittsburgh’s success to Staal’s tide-changing play. Maybe it’s the peace of mind in knowing that he starts that long, official contract.
As the first line center in this game with Crosby and Malkin both out, he didn’t look nervous. He commanded the ice. He led the team. He succeeded in firing off 10 shots: 5 on goal, 3 attempts blocked, and 2 that missed their mark. This kind of shot production is promising. He managed break-aways and stood strong on the face-off dot, leading his team by winning 61% of his draws. He seemed to be everywhere on the ice, logging the most ice time at 24:31, and he didn’t look tired.
There’s a lot to like about a young guy who still has not reached his prime as a hockey player. When one looks at what he has accomplished in three full years in the NHL, where he will be as a player in the next three years seems limitless and maybe a little unimaginable. He’s become a premiere shut-down center, pitted against top lines across the league. He’s proven to be his own steel curtain on the penalty kill with his smart positional play and an endlessly long reach–and he seems to really like the short-handed break-aways. In watching the game Sunday, the notably strong 6’4″ Staal looked even stronger as he fended off and fairly manhandled Detroit’s defensemen to keep play in the Red Wings’ end as long as possible.
Not long after Dan Bylsma’s entrance, there were early signs after the coaching change late last season that showed Staal was starting to flourish under his new coach’s style. This is the year that the question: “Imagine what a full year under Dan Bylsma could do?” will be answered. Early indications are showing that the development of Jordan Staal will really be something to watch.