Penguins center Staal will miss start of season
Coach Dan Bylsma doesn't believe the Penguins lack viable third-line centers — even with Jordan Staal out at least five weeks because another infection required a second summer surgery on his right foot this week.
Staal isn't a third-line center anymore anyway, though his latest setback will delay until October the proposed plan to pair him and center Evgeni Malkin on the second line.
The Penguins cautiously have targeted the final week of training camp as skating days for Staal, who this week had infected tissue removed from the area near where a severed tendon in his right foot was repaired in May. He has skated only once and trained just sporadically during the offseason because of scar-tissue infections that his agent confirmed were neither Staph nor MRSA.
Bylsma said Thursday that Malkin and Sidney Crosby are his top centers "right now." He identified Mike Comrie, Max Talbot and Mark Letestu as players he considered centers entering training camp, which opens today with medical evaluations.
Excluding Staal, the Penguins have 12 forwards on NHL contracts. Letestu is on a two-way deal. General manager Ray Shero said last month the Penguins could keep 14 forwards if a player on a two-way contract won a job during camp. The Penguins are $1.2 million under the salary cap, and Staal's $4 million hit temporarily could be deducted from that if he is placed on the long-term injury list to start the season.
Comrie, a wing his past two seasons, is a natural center. He also is one of only three Penguins to have scored at least 30 goals in a season, last hitting that mark five years ago.
Talbot, coming off a down year (two goals in 45 games), also is a natural center. He has handled that role's defensive responsibilities when on a line with Malkin, including during the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Referring to July 2009 shoulder surgery that kept him from camp and the opening months of the regular season, Talbot's 2009-10 campaign should not be considered an indicator that Staal will struggle upon returning, he said.
"It was tough to not have an offseason, because that's where you build your strength," Talbot said. "I couldn't get my legs. I was missing my jump."
Several teammates described Staal as "really upset" about the most recent developments. He could not be reached for comment.
Letestu was inserted into the lineup during Staal's two-game absence from the playoffs in May after he was injured by Montreal defenseman PK Subban in Game 1 of the second round. From being a rare right-handed faceoff option to possessing a hockey IQ lauded by Bylsma, a lot appears to be in Letestu's favor to win a spot in camp.
Center Ryan Craig, who signed a two-way contract this summer, is an outside-the-box candidate to win a spot. He is a veteran of 184 NHL games and scored 29 goals in his first two seasons (2005-07) with Tampa Bay.
Bylsma said Craig "won a lot of faceoffs" against Letestu and prospect Dustin Jeffrey while playing for Norfolk of the American Hockey League last season.
More than anything, the Penguins will miss Staal's penalty-killing prowess. He was the ace of a group that last season included Talbot and wings Craig Adams, Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis.
Bylsma said right wing Tyler Kennedy will "get a chance to prove if he can do it" during camp. He also mentioned Malkin, a reputable penalty killer for Russia in international competitions, Craig and free-agent wing Arron Asham as possibilities to replace Staal "by committee" on the penalty kill.
Replacing Staal, considered a foundation player and an elite defensive forward, isn't really possible.
"A lot of us know that he's a huge part of this team," Cooke said, "and he knows it."
Penguins center Jordan Staal will miss the start of the regular season with another infection that required surgery on his right foot. His rank last season among Penguins who are returning this year:
Goals: 21 (3rd)
Points: 49 (3rd)
Shorthanded goals: 2 (T-1st)
Takeaways: 41 (3rd)
Average time on ice: 19:23 (6th)
Average shorthanded time: 3:20 (1st)