Kovacevic: Pens could be Staal's team
When the Penguins report to Consol Energy Center early Saturday morning to open training camp, they will enter a locker room with every sweater hanging, tidy and pressed, at its assigned stall.
And only one will bear a "C," that of Sidney Crosby's No 87.
That's as it should be. A hockey captaincy is more distinction than designation. It's a face and voice of the franchise. Crosby very much remains that, even with the concussion still clouding his future, just as Mario Lemieux retained his "C" through all manner of ailment except when sitting out all of 1995 and deferring to Ron Francis.
"We have a captain. There's no question Sid's our captain," coach Dan Bylsma said in a talk we had Tuesday at the Penguins' golf outing in Sewickley. "Sid's influential even when he's not in our lineup. All that time he was out, guys saw him in there working every day. He's our leader."
That doesn't figure to change in the months to come, no matter Crosby's health. But I'd still suggest that the Penguins designate one player, even if it's informal, to be their leader in Crosby's absence.
My pick: Jordan Staal.
He turned 23 last week and is entering his sixth NHL season, the prime of his career. He is a 6-foot-4, bull-strong checking center good for 20-plus goals and grit galore. No, he'll never be the big scorer that some still naively await, but the kid's a winner: The Penguins are 249-147-20 when he plays, including 40 playoff victories.
More relevant here, Staal began to assert himself two seasons ago when winning the Player's Player award in a vote of his teammates. Last season, by all accounts, he took that to another level. He stood up in the room, piped up in practice for the "boys" to keep their feet moving, even skated with an extra gear.
The broader result was not only a 20-11-4 record without Crosby or Evgeni Malkin but also the hardest-working group of Penguins I've seen in a lifetime of watching them.
"Jordan was a big part of that," Bylsma said. "He raised his bar on and off the ice."
Staal acknowledged as much this week but only after I teased that he doesn't exactly remind of another, far more famous leader who wore No. 11.
"No, I'm not the Mark Messier type," Staal said with a laugh. "I'm usually not very vocal. But there are certain times that call for it. I think I did some of that last year, and I didn't feel like I was forced into it. I felt like it became a big part of my role and feel like I still have room to grow there."
So do the Penguins, based on recent conversations I've had.
The only other case I could make is for Brooks Orpik, a player I've long felt would make a fine NHL captain. Thing is, with these Penguins, Orpik works fine with or without a letter. He comes filter-free, unafraid to say anything to anyone, and that can be easier when you don't also need to be Mr. Popular.
Bottom line: The Penguins can't continue indefinitely with a carousel of alternate captains. Last season, eight players wore an "A:" Staal, Malkin, Orpik, Chris Kunitz, Matt Cooke, Craig Adams, Paul Martin and Max Talbot. Injuries forced that to an extent, but it's still way above the typical two.
It sure seems the Penguins would benefit from having a singular leader to speak up, say, after two flat periods in a game at Edmonton.
"I walk into that room all the time, and I can tell you it's not Sidney Crosby, even a majority of the time, who would be the vocal guy during that intermission in Edmonton," Bylsma said, downplaying that notion. "There might be a moment when it's Sid, but it could be any of five other people. Sid's comfortable when other people are leading, even when he's in the room."
Fine, but why not just one for however long Crosby is out?
Bylsma didn't sound eager to delve into that, given Crosby's uncertain status, but he made clear he wouldn't be offended if someone stepped up.
"You're always trying to foster more leadership," Bylsma said.
There will be no more powerful moment in Pittsburgh sports this year -- not the Pirates poking into first place, not even the Steelers reaching the Super Bowl -- than when Crosby comes back. Until he laces up, though, a player already on the rink needs to keep the boys' feet moving.