The Departed" series on Empty Netters is a set of "eulogies" for former Penguins who have passed away... to other teams. Essentially, we look back on their time as a Penguin, examine their contributions to the franchise and as real eulogies occasionally do, exaggerate a bit. Today's eulogy is dedicated to Jordan Staal.
It was a brave new world for the Penguins in the summer of 2006. Long-time general manager Craig Patrick, the man who led the franchise to its greatest successes, was fired earlier in the spring. He was replaced Ray Shero, a man most hockey fans only knew as the son of former Flyers coach Fred Shero.
Less than a month after being hired, Shero was faced with the prospect of conducting his first draft with the Penguins. Possessing the second overall pick, he had several options. Jonathan Toews, Phil Kessel and Nicklas Backstrom were all viable options but had some risks associated with them. Shero instead chose a player who was a safer option with some name appeal.
Having seen the success of Eric Staal with the Stanley Cup champion Hurricanes, Shero took a his brother, Jordan, with his very first draft pick.
A tall farm boy from Thunder Bay, Ont., Staal was an all-star with the OHL's Peterborough Petes. He came to the Penguins a giant of a man at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds despite only being 17 years old.
With most other teams, Staal would be a primary focus of attention entering training camp. But with Sidney Crosby coming off a historic rookie season and 2004 first-round pick Evgeni Malkin making an improbable transit across the Atlantic Ocean to join the Penguins, Staal was almost an afterthought. Considering he was still eligible for junior hockey, it was assumed he would simply get a look in training camp and be returned to Peterborough.
He would appear in six preseason games and only recorded one assist, but Staal looked like he belonged. He wasn't overwhelmed by the speed of the NHL game, albeit in preseason conditions. He looked like a player ready to compete at this level. As a result, Shero opted to keep Staal and fellow rookie defenseman Kris Letang on the NHL roster to start the regular season. Combined with Crosby, the Penguins had three teenagers on their roster for the first time in franchise history.
Staal would sign a three-year entry-level contract, but he was still eligible to return to Peterborough as NHL rules allow teams to send junior-eligible players back to their junior teams before they play 10 regular season games.
After being limited to fourth-line and penalty-killing duties in the first two games of the season. Staal had his coming out party in a wild 6-5 road win against the Rangers, Oct. 12. Killing a penalty, Staal stole a puck off former Penguins captain Jaromir Jagr, outraced defenseman Michal Rozival and ripped a wrister by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist for his first career NHL goal:
Additionally, it was a shorthanded goal. Penguins fans would quickly learn that would be a theme with Staal.
Malkin would return from a preseason shoulder injury and would absorb most of the spotlight as he set a modern NHL scoring record for rookies. That didn't take away from the effectiveness of Staal. During a 5-3 win against the Blue Jackets, Oct. 21, Staal would score two goals. Both were once again shorthanded. The second came on a penalty shot against goaltender Fredrik Norrena:
With the nine-game threshold approaching, Shero had a decision to make. Staal ended up making it an easy one. The Penguins opted to keep Staal on their NHL roster instead of returning him to juniors. With five points in nine games, Staal had shown he was ready to the NHL. It wasn't a matter of if the Penguins should keep him. They had to keep him.
Goals like this dazzling shorthanded score in an 8-4 rout of the rival Flyers Dec. 13 verified that need:
And goals like this dogged shorthanded effort which sparked a comeback 3-2 win on the road in Atlanta Dec. 21:
And goals like this simply dominating display which secured a 4-1 win against Maple Leafs Dec. 29:
By mid-January, head coach Michel Therrien formed a line which would remain together most of the season when he moved Staal on to the right wing with Malkin as center and personal favorite Michel Ouellet on the left wing. That trio showed what it could do when it combined for eight points in a 5-3 win against the Flyers, Jan. 13. All three players recorded a point on what proved to be the game-winning goal:
In late January and early February, the team would go on a season-defining streak where it recorded at least a point in 16 consecutive games. During that streak, Staal had his own streak where he recorded a goal in five consecutive games. The highlight of that success as well as his rookie campaign was his first career hat trick which came in a roller coaster of a 6-5 overtime win in Toronto. Staal ended up getting the winning goal and became the youngest player in NHL history to record a hat trick:
Staal's increase five-on-five responsibilities didn't take away from his shorthanded acumen. In a dramatic 5-4 comeback road win against the Senators, Staal sparked the comeback with this shorthanded goal:
That score set a record for shorthanded goals by a rookie with seven. Overall, Staal's first NHL regular season was a rousing success. In 81 games, he scored 42 points, including 29 goals, a mark which remains a career high.
The young Penguins would face the grizzled Senators in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. Most of the Penguins seemed overwhelmed by the pace of the postseason. Staal was an exception as scored three goals in five games. After the season, Staal was named a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie. In just about any other season, he would have taken that award home. But his center, Malkin, was the only NHL freshman who was deemed to have more success and took home the hardware.
After an offseason in which he was arrested for underage drinking at his brother Eric's wedding, Staal didn't have immediate success in the 2007-08 season the way he did as a rookie. In October, he recorded as many goals as fights. One. Staal's first official NHL fight, against Washington forward Matt Pettinger, came in a 2-1 road win against the rival Capitals, Oct. 20:
Staal struggled offensively in the first three months of that season as he only recorded three goals. Part of this was due to his new role as the team's third-line center. Instead of riding shotgun with an offensive dynamo like Malkin, Staal was now centering hustling rookie Tyler Kennedy and gritty antagonist Jarkko Ruutu. While hardly offensively proficient, that trio served as the team's shutdown line and would routinely draw assignments against opponent's top scorers.
As the Penguins won a division title for the first time since 1998, Staal's final totals for the regular season were hardly spectacular. Playing in all 82 games, he ended up with 28 points and 12 goals. Shockingly, he ended up with no shorthanded goals. Once the postseason began, Staal and his line ramped up their game. Playing a bank off the corner boards, Kennedy snapped off a feed to Staal in the slot which was one-touched by goaltender Martin Gerber to help the Penguins secure a 4-1 win in Game 3 of an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series:
After sweeping the Senators, the Penguins faced the rival Rangers in an Eastern Conference semifinal series. In Game 2, Staal broke open a defensive affair by poking a puck in the crease behind Lundqvist on a power-play goal in what proved to be the winning score in a 2-0 victory:
In Game 3, Staal found out first-hand what his other brother, defenseman Marc Staal could do:
After beating the Rangers in five games, the Penguins would meet another division rival, the Flyers, in the Eastern Conference final. In a 4-2 loss in Game 4, Staal had what ended up being one of the seminal moments of his young career when he scored two goals days after mourning the death of his grandfather.
The Penguins would beat the Flyers in five games and advance to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in 16 years. Staal would not record a point and the Penguins would fall to the veteran Red Wings in six games. Staal finished the postseason with seven points and six goals, third-most on the team.
Getting off to another slow start offensively in 2007-08, Staal went without a goal in October. Midway through November, Staal exploded for a hat trick in a wild, improbable rematch with the Red Wings, Nov. 11. But his best play in that game was not a goal. It was a defensive play. Chasing down Selke Trophy-winning forward Pavel Datsyuk, Staal stripped him of the puck, reversed ice and set up forward Ruslan Fedotenko for the winning score in overtime:
With hard-hitting Matt Cooke replacing Ruutu, Staal gelled with the wingers he would primarily play with for the next four seasons. Their chemistry was almost instantaneous. Using a cycle that would become their hallmark, the trio connected for a goal which ended up being a game-winning score in a 5-2 comeback win against the Sabres, Nov. 15:
Midway through the season, the Penguins and Staal hit a slump. Staal himself would go 13 games without a goal in January and Feburary. And by the time the Penguins went down 6-2 in Toronto, Feb. 15, the Penguins slipped to 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings. That forced Shero to replace Therrien with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. Later in February, Shero dealt defenseman Ryan Whitney to the Ducks in exchange for forwards Chris Kunitz and Eric Tangradi. Kunitz was seen as a winger for Crosby but at the time, Crosby had been sidelined with a groin injury. That allowed Bylsma to team Staal with Kunitz in his Penguins debut, an entertaining 5-4 overtime win in Chicago. Staal and Kunitz would each connect for a goal.
Once Crosby returned and veteran winger Bill Guerin was added to the team via trade, the Penguins went on a pretty fierce tear to finish the season winning 19 of their last 24 games and finished the regular season in fourth place. Staal himself would finish the season on a five-game scoring streak and rebounded offensively. Once again playing in all 82 games, he set a career high with 49 points and collected 22 goals.
In the postseason, Staal only contributed two goals in the first three rounds. As the Penguins defeated the Flyers, Capitals and his brother Eric's Hurricanes in the first three rounds, Staal's primary contributions were limited to the defensive side of the game. The Penguins once again advanced to the Stanley Cup final where they once again faced the Red Wings for the sport's ultimate prize. That's where Staal would produce the ultimate moment of his career.
Trailing the Red Wings, 2-1, in the series, the Penguins faced a 2-1 deficit in Game 3 at the Mellon Arena. Attempting to kill off another Detroit power play in the second period, Staal turned everything in the game and the series around. Taking a little pass from forward Maxime Talbot, Staal charged through the neutral zone. As he entered the offensive zone, he pushed by all-star defenseman Brian Rafalski as if he were a minor annoyance, flipped the puck to his forehand and snapped a wrister by goaltender Chris Osgood's right leg:
Staal's goal would tie the game. The Penguins would win the game, 4-2 and tie the series, 2-2. After getting blasted, 5-0, in Game 5 in Detroit, the Penguins faced a do-or-die in Game 6 at home. Staal did.
During an attempted line change by the Red Wings, Staal poked a puck by defenseman Brett Lebda and created a two-on-one with Cooke against defenseman Jonathan Ericsson. As Ericsson took away the pass, Staal elected to shoot. Osgood stopped Staal's initial offering but allowed a rebound. Staal was able to clean it up and whacked it off Osgood's glove and into the cage.
The goal gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead in a game they won, 2-1. Returning to Detroit's Joe Louis Arena for Game 7, the Penguins had a 2-1 lead the late stages of the contest. After turning away wave after wave of the Red Wings' attacks. The game came down to a final faceoff with seven seconds left. Staal was one of five skaters Bylsma had on the ice with the season on the line:
The very first player Shero had drafted two years earlier, Staal had played a vital role in the franchise's transformation into a Stanley Cup contender. He finished that postseason with a career-best nine points and was a major part in a penalty kill which helped shut down Detroit's talented power play.
Raising the franchise's Stanley Cup banner at the start of the 2009-10 season, the Penguins raced out to a torrid start that campaign winning nine out of their first 10 games. Staal contributed three goals during that stretch, including this effort in a 4-1 road win against the Senators, Oct. 12 where he forced a turnover by defenseman Chris Campoli and banged in a rebound off a shot by forward Mike Rupp:
Staal continued to excel defensively. In a 5-2 home win against the Ducks, Nov. 16, Staal snuck behind Anaheim's defense and beat goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere for a shorthanded goal which proved to be the game-winner:
Staal also began to show what he could do in with an elevated role that season. When Crosby missed a game Dec. 5 against the Blackhawks due to a groin injury, Staal took the ice late with the team trailing 1-0. Lining up wide on the opposite boards, Staal snuck in unnoticed and banged in a rebound off a shot by Malkin to tie the game with just over a minute remaining:
Playing in all 82 of his team's games once again, Staal moved within spitting distance of a franchise record. Having played in 302 consecutive games, Staal was moving on Ron Schock's franchise record of 313. He would match his career high of 49 points. Additionally, he was named a finalist for the Selke Trophy which is awarded to the league's top defensive forward.
In the postseason, the Penguins once again faced the Senators in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. Staal would help the Penguins claim the series with another defensive play. Forcing a steal behind the Ottawa net, Staal dealt a pass to forward Pascal Dupuis who whipped a wrister by goaltender Pascal Leclaire for the overtime goal in a series-clinching 4-3 win in Game 5:
Moving on to face the Canadiens in the semifinals, the Penguins romped to a 6-3 win in Game 1 but suffered a crucial loss when Montreal defenseman PK Subban stomped on the right foot of Staal and sliced tendons.
Staal would miss the next two games of the series but managed to grit it out for the final four games of the series at less than 100 percent. With Staal laboring, the Penguins could not figure out Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak and went down in seven games.
During that offseason, Staal's recovery from the foot injury hit a road block when infection set in. The ailment would force him out of the lineup as the Penguins opened up shiny new Consol Energy Center. After rehabbing all of October, Staal appeared ready to return before another stroke of bad luck struck. Taking a puck off his right hand in practice, Staal required further surgery to repair that injury. The Penguins most durable player for his first four seasons with the club, Staal would miss the first three months of that season.
He found a pretty big stage to return on.
Facing the rival Capitals on New Year's Day in the Winter Classic, Staal saw his first action of the season on a slushy sheet of ice constructed on Heinz Field. Staal's ice time was limited to 14:38 and he only recorded two shots on net, but he returned. And the timing could not be better.
With Crosby suffering a concussion during the game, his season was finished four nights later after an 8-1 win against the Lightning Jan. 5. At this point, the Penguins needed Staal. Facing the Canadiens Jan. 12, Staal took advantage of his time on the power play and snapped a quick one-timer by goaltender Carey Price late in the second period for what proved to be a game-winning goal of a 5-2 win:
With Malkin's season coming to an end roughly a month later due to a knee injury, Staal's offense was even more important to the team. Taking a backhanded pass by Cooke behind the Boston net, Staal scored the game-winning goal in a 3-2 win at Boston:
After forcing a turnover by defenseman Jack Johnson, Staal raced in off the right wing boards and ripped a wrister to the far side behind goaltender Jonathan Quick to give the Penguins a 2-1 overtime win against the Kings, Feb. 10:
But what became even more vital to the Penguins was his defense. Usually one of the first players over the board to face a man advantage, Staal manned a penalty killing unit with dominated the rest of the NHL. With the Penguins relying more on defense than offense as the season wore on, the Penguins finished the campaign with the league's best penalty kill at with 86.1 percent. As a result, the Penguins threatened the Capitals for first place in the Eastern Conference but ultimately finished in fourth place.
In the postseason, the Penguins faced the Lightning in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. They would take a 3-1 series lead thanks in part to an overtime goal by James Neal in Game 4. Neal goal was set up by Staal who managed to keep the puck in the offensive zone:
The Penguins would fall in seven games to the Lightning however. The team's penalty kill, playing without a suspended Cooke, simply couldn't handle the Lightning's immensley skilled power play.
With Crosby not completely healed, the Penguins entered the 2011-12 season with Staal as the No. 2 center. He lived up to expectations by playing primarily between Crosby's usual wingers, Kunitz and Dupuis. Getting off to the best start of his career, Staal collected nine points in 12 games during October. He could score ugly goals. Spinning off a check, he chopped in this goal behind goaltender Niklas Backstrom to help the Penguins win at Minnesota, 4-2, Oct. 18:
He could also score pretty goals. Deking by defenseman Bryce Salvador, he flipped this backhander on the short side by goaltender Johan Hedberg in a 4-2 victory against the Devils, Oct. 22:
When Crosby returned to the lineup, in late November, Staal was re-united with Cooke and Kennedy on the third line. But his offense didn't suffer due to the demotion. In a dramatic 4-3 overtime win in Montreal, Nov. 26, Staal tied the game late with a breakaway goal against Price:
Crosby would leave the lineup in early December due to a return of his concussion issues. Staal maintained his consistency on offense. He helped the team pull out a tough 4-1 win in Winnipeg, Dec. 23 with a power-play goal from the left circle:
Producing at the best offensive clip in his control, Staal appeared to be well on his way to the first 30-goal season of his career. But a knee injury in early January would sideline him for over a month. By the time he returned, it was like he was never gone. Staal would go on a 10-game scoring streak in February and March. That streak would coincide with the Penguins going on a 11-game winning streak. Getting a bit of interference from a linesman, Staal raced in on a helpless Dwayne Roloson and snapped off this breakaway goal during an 8-1 rout of the Lightning, Feb. 25:
Staal would finish the season with 25 goals and a career-best 50 points. Additionally, the penalty kill actually improved from the previous season finishing at 87.8 percent. That impressive total would mask what lay ahead in the postseason.
Facing the Flyers in an Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series, the Penguins' penalty kill imploded as it allowed 12 goals on 23 chances.
The series proved to be a wide-open affair for both teams as little of anything resembling defense was played. Both teams racked up goals as if were the mid-1980s. Staal ended up being the team's leading scorer in the postseason with nine points. Three of them came off a hat trick in Game 4, a 10-3 rout by the Penguins.
In a do-or-die Game 5 at Consol Energy Center, Staal scored a game-tying goal by taking a tip pass from Kennedy and a wrister by goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov on the shortside:
And in what would end up being his last home game in Pittsburgh, Staal connected one last time with Cooke and Kennedy on the game-winning goal using their reliable cycle:
The Penguins would get blasted in Philadelphia, 5-1, in the deciding Game 6. Their season and as it turned out, Staal's career with the Penguins, came to a finish.
Entering the offseason, rumors of Staal desiring a bigger role outside of the Crosby's and Malkin's shadows had surfaced. Seeing what he could do with a larger role during Crosby's absence, Staal wanted a chance to be something more than a No. 3 center. The Penguins had discussed a contract extension with Staal but he declined a lucrative 10-year offer.
Ironically, it was at the NHL Draft, the same event where he had drafted his first player just over half a decade earlier, where Shero traded that same player.
Staal was sent to the Hurricanes to join his brother Eric. In exchange, the Penguins acquired Brandon Sutter, defensive prospect Brian Dumoulin and the No. 8 overall pick in the draft.
In 431 career games with the Penguins, Staal scored 120 goals and 248 points, 30th-most in franchise history. He scored 13 shorthanded goals, fourth-most with the franchise. In 73 postseason games, he scored 23 goals (seventh-most) and 36 points (12th-most).
Staal's name will pop up multiple times with a quick glance at the Penguins' record books. He had multiple accomplishment during his time with the Penguins.
They all pale in comparison to his largest accomplishment of all; Helping the franchise return to its place among the NHL's elite.
(Photos: First and third-Jim McIsaac/Getty Images; Second-Rick Stewart/Getty Images)