Staal a thriller as a penalty killer
Friday, March 16, 2007
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Jordan Staal is not entirely new to this line of work, you know.
He actually spent quite a bit of time killing penalties while playing junior hockey in Peterborough, Ontario, last winter.
Went fairly well, too, as he recalls.
"I did a pretty good job of it, I think," Staal said. "And it kind of carried over here."
Yeah, kind of. The same way that whole singing thing worked out OK for Mick Jagger.
Never mind that it's quite a feat for a guy who's nearly six months shy of his 19th birthday to be cashing a professional paycheck, let along holding down a spot in an NHL team's penalty-killing rotation.
For as effective as Staal, who teams with Ryan Malone on one of the Penguins' two penalty-killing units, has been at preventing goals in short-handed situations, it's the success he has had scoring them that's so remarkable.
He enters the Penguins' game against Montreal at 7:38 p.m. today at Mellon Arena with seven short-handed goals. That's a record for NHL rookies, and three more than the rest of the first-year players in the league had combined to score before last night's games.
In fact, Staal had produced more short-handed goals than 13 teams had before last night. Indeed, even though Staal has appeared in only 69 games at this level, he needs just one short-handed goal to tie Malone for ninth place on the Penguins' all-time list.
Even though the Petes gave him regular work as a penalty-killer, Staal allowed that "I don't remember getting a whole lot [of short-handed goals] during the [regular] season."
There's a good reason for that. His seven short-handed goals are five more than he got in 68 games in 2005-06, which makes what Staal has done during his first five-plus months in the NHL all the more amazing.
Therrien, cognizant of Staal's penalty-killing experience in the Ontario Hockey League and the Memorial Cup junior championships, said yesterday that he initially plugged Staal into that role primarily "to find him some more ice time."
It didn't take long for Staal to settle in, however, and it quickly became apparent that his size, skills and instincts made him a natural for the job.
"He's got such a good stick, and he's always in good position," Therrien said. "The way he sees the game, the way he angles the play, the way he uses his stick, the way he reads the game, you could see [that he could kill penalties effectively]."
Of all Staal's assets -- and there are many -- none is more striking than his reach. Watch him extend his arms to block a pass or keep the puck away from an opponent, and you get the impression that he could stand on top of a 747 and touch the tips of both wings. Without stretching.
Couple that with his hockey sense, and it translates to a lot of frustration for opposing players.
"He puts himself in positions to use his reach or intercept passes," Malone said. "That's something you really can't teach. It's just something that he's got."
And when he has the puck, the value of Staal's reach is compounded by the way he's able to use his strength and his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame to shield it from opponents. That's a common thread in many of his short-handed goals.
"When he has a step on players, he's tough to contain," Therrien said.
Staal's hands are pretty special, too. He has 28 goals -- that matches his total in Peterborough last season -- on 108 shots, a conversion rate of 25.9 percent that is, by far, the best in the NHL. Alex Tanguay of Calgary and Ottawa's Jason Spezza were tied for second before last night's games at 21.1 percent.
He has at least an outside chance at claiming a place in the NHL record book as the most accurate rookie shooter in league history. That mark belongs to Penguins alum Warren Young, who converted 30.8 percent of his shots in 1984-85, while ex-Penguin Rob Brown ranks second at 30 percent during 1987-88.
If he doesn't get that record, Staal might be able to make a run at another -- Mario Lemieux's single-season mark of 13 short-handed goals, set in 1988-89 -- someday if penalty-killing remains part of his job description.
"That's always going to be there [as a target] for him," Malone said. "Thirteen, that's a lot. ... But you never know."