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Staal's return gives Pens a chance to follow their leader

Analysis

RALEIGH -- These Penguins survived 12 games without their secret weapon; a player described last May by one former teammate as "maybe the guy we could least afford to lose considering everything he does"; the cornerstone piece with whom general manager Ray Shero believes "you win Stanley Cups."

Center Jordan Staal is eligible to play Wednesday night at Dallas. If he does, for the first time in months, the Penguins can follow the man-child who is also perhaps their true leader.

That suggestion is no knock on center Sidney Crosby and his stature as face of the franchise. He has instinctively and successfully molded this captaincy after hockey idol Steve Yzerman: choosing words carefully; leading with his tireless work ethic; and setting daily a new standard for teammates to pursue.

That suggestion is no knock on right wing Evgeni Malkin, an alternate captain whose willingness to switch positions was a largely underappreciated display of leadership. His growing acceptance of off-ice responsibilities, from speaking almost daily with the media to last week modeling the 2010 Winter Classic uniforms, offers encouraging signs of his commitment to the organization.

That suggestion is no knock on defenseman Brooks Orpik, who is sharing a second alternate captaincy with Staal. He is the longest tenured Penguin, and his honest, authoritative voice - he calls all situations like he sees them - has garnered him a reputation as the club's conscience.

Staal shares many of the best qualities displayed by Crosby (work ethic), Malkin (unselfishness) and Orpik (honesty). However, because those teammates have afforded him the time and under-the-radar cover to mature over the past four seasons, he has grown into a leadership role that is uniquely his.

If Crosby is the heart, Malkin the soul and Orpik the conscience, Staal is the spark for all three.

Witness two years ago, a couple of weeks before the Penguins fell deep into a funk that would cost former coach Michel Therrien his job; Staal was the first player to speak out against that squad's lack of discipline after a discouraging loss to then-lowly Phoenix. A few days after Therrien was fired, Staal said players needed to realize "that (move) was on us."

"He has a real clear feeling and idea of what's right and wrong," said coach Dan Bylsma, who replaced Therrien.

They Penguins are 6-5-1 this season (13 points) despite having yet to play with close to a full-strength lineup. With Staal, they should become the East's dominant club because he is the paten-pending part that makes their machine unique.

He was a finalist for the Selke Trophy last season, an award that is presented annually to the NHL's best defensive forward. His defense is so often mentioned by admirers that it's become easy to forget he has scored 20 goals in three of four seasons, without substantial power-play time, and that he's only 22.

He is the club's third-leading returning scorer from last season, when the Penguins were fifth in overall offense.

"He's got that really weird combination of offensive and defensive ability, and he's one of those rare guys who are so strong, even he doesn't know it," Orpik said. "He'll bump into you in practice, and you're, like, 'Holy, Staalsy, take it down a notch.'"

It's possible Staal could struggle out of the gate. He missed an entire offseason of training because of two infections in a right foot that first required surgery last May because of a severed tendon. Orpik said none of Staal's teammates were surprised he missed only two playoff games because of that tendon procedure.

Staal acknowledged last June that he felt an obligation to return fast as the Penguins tried to defend their Stanley Cup title, that he was raised to play through pain if he could skate. He admitted that agonized expression he flashed while shaking hands with the Montreal Canadiens after that Game 7 loss had little to do with physical discomfort.

"Jordan cares so much, maybe he thinks we win if he wasn't hurt," said Malkin, whose transition from center to wing was made in part because the Penguins believe Staal's offensive game has developed quickly. "Everybody can't wait for Jordan (to) come back."

The wait for Staal is nearing an end. When Staal steps onto the ice for the first time this season, all the Penguins need to do is follow where his surgically-repaired right foot leads them.

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