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Pens' Staal could become force this season

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The Penguins are dodging a bullet because one of hockey's great two-way players, Canucks center Ryan Kesler, is nursing a hip injury and won't be available for Thursday night's season opener.

Center Jordan Staal, entering his sixth NHL season at age 23, might be poised to see his offensive numbers spike just like Kesler's did.

Both became NHL regulars because of strong defensive play, and Canucks captain Henrik Sedin suggested Staal could follow Kesler's lead and become a dynamic offensive player.

"I see so many similarities between Jordan and Kesler," Sedin said. "It seems like Jordan has been in the league forever, but you must remember how young he is. The offense will come."

Even if Staal doesn't post 30-plus goals ever season, the Penguins won't complain. At worst, he's the league's best third-line center and a penalty-killing monster who elevates his game in the playoffs.

There's nothing wrong with that, but Staal may be capable of more. Coach Dan Bylsma's believes Staal's good health — he missed all of training camp and the first half of last season after foot surgeries and a broken hand — will lead to a strong season.

"We see many players struggle after not having training camp and miss half the year," Bylsma said. "No one gives Jordan credit for that. He got better in his numbers; he played a more significant role."

Instead of methodically working himself into NHL shape last season, Staal became the Penguins' first-line center for the first time. With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin out with season-ending injuries, Staal became the player that the opposition focused on.

"He did well," Sedin said. "He makes great plays all the time, just like Kesler. It took Kesler a while before he scored lots of goals. It will be the same thing with Staal."

Kesler didn't crack the 40-point barrier until his fifth NHL season, when he posted 26 goals and 33 assists for 59 points in 2008-09. He surged the following year, finishing with 25 goals and 50 assists. He capped that last season with a career-high 41 goals among 73 points.

Staal had at least 40 points in three of his first four NHL seasons. Last year's 30 points —11 goals and 19 assists — in 42 games would have yielded 59 points over an 82-game schedule.

Bylsma said he witnessed a new Staal during training camp. Finally able to enjoy a healthy summer and camp, Staal was more poised with the puck than in previous seasons.

"I think there's been a significant boost in the way he's skating and going to the net," Bylsma said. "You're going to see him get better. I wouldn't be surprised to see him get 10 more points (than his career high) this year."

Staal's teammates have long appreciated his work.

"He's asked to shut down the best players on the other team, score points, kill penalties and help on the power play," left wing Chris Kunitz said. "That's a lot."

Kesler is asked to do all of those things, too.

"Great player," Staal said. "I don't get to see him play that often, but he can do it all."

Drafted three years before Staal, Kesler only recently became an offensive force. Staal could be on the same path.

"He's going to keep getting better and better," Sedin said. "You'll see."

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