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Staal's a priority for Pens

Let's cut to the chase: The Penguins have no desire to trade Jordan Staal for a winger to play with Sidney Crosby -- and this was their stance long before Staal's monster game Tuesday in Detroit.

They won't part with Staal unless forced to do so.

General manager Ray Shero wants a long-term deal with Staal because Shero has maintained all along -- since his first significant move as GM was drafting Staal second overall in 2006 -- that this is the kind of player who wins Stanley Cups.

The key question is, does Staal want to stay• He can be a restricted free agent July 1.

Shero says talks with his core players always boil down to the same issue.

"If they really want to be here," he said Wednesday, "we'll find a way to make it work."

One could translate as such: If Staal is willing to take less than what he might get elsewhere -- as Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Brooks Orpik and Marc-Andre Fleury have done -- he will be here for a long time with a fair deal and a prominent role.

Now, we don't know if word might be out that another team plans to lavish Staal with a crazy offer sheet. We don't know the numbers being tossed about in the Penguins' offices, either.

If it becomes clear that Staal wants to leave, the Penguins should seek to trade him as soon as possible. Losing him to an offer sheet would net only draft picks, and even first-rounders would be of no immediate help to a team built to win now.

But that could all be immaterial, because it sure sounds as if Staal wants to stay based on what he said yesterday -- hours after his heroics sparked a 7-6 victory.

Might a deal be struck during the regular season?

"Yeah, it's something that can always happen," Staal said. "And when the time is right, I'm sure it will."

He added, "I have a lot of great friends here. It's a great fit for me. It's a team I want to be part of. We're young and we want to grow together."

Unlike Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Staal decided against re-signing with a year left on his entry-level contract. That probably was wise, coming off a 12-goal season.

"It's nothing I'm too worried about," he said. "Fleury and (defenseman Ryan) Whitney signed at the end of their deals. When it happens, it happens."

As for the notion that Staal can't possibly get enough ice time in the presence of Malkin and Crosby, consider this: Staal plays 20:06 per game -- almost exactly what Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk log in Detroit -- and will play more when he gains a regular power-play role.

The ice time is there. The numbers will be, too.

As Staal says, "The way they use me, it's a lot of ice time, no matter what. You don't have to be on the top two lines to score."

Another issue for Staal to consider is the widely held belief that the NHL's salary cap soon will shrink because of the world economic meltdown. Signing long-term now might be the way to go.

A legitimate concern for the Penguins is whether they want a huge percentage of their money allotted to three centers.

Good question, but this wouldn't be like when Tampa Bay sank a gazillion dollars into three offensive stars, because Staal provides a critical defensive element as a top shutdown center. If keeping him means moving a defenseman to acquire a winger, or continuing to fill holes on the wings with free agents, so be it.

Every team has challenges under a salary cap.

Every team has to be creative.

Some of us -- most notably Shero -- have not wavered in our opinion of Staal, no matter his natural inconsistencies as a young player. It's not often one comes across a 6-foot-4, 225-pound beast with soft hands, a powerful stride and superior hockey sense.

And who says he'll never score 40 goals or be a consistent 30-goal scorer?

I'm not saying he will. I'm saying he already has a 29-goal season (Ryan Malone doesn't) and has scored nine goals in 25 playoff games (same as Crosby).

"Yes," the critic would say, "but Staal also disappears at times and goes months without a goal."

He's 20.

In a few years, he will be Godzilla on skates.

And if he so desires, he will be wearing a Penguins uniform.

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