Pens' Staal enjoys spike in goal production

| Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011

That Penguins center Jordan Staal ripped into his teammates following a sloppy first period against Colorado on Tuesday is no surprise. Leadership has always come naturally to him.

Consistent scoring has always seemed more of a challenge for the 23-year-old.

Until now, anyway.

Staal, long considered one of the game's elite defensive forwards, has become an offensive force. His vision and creativity — never strengths in his first five seasons — have seemingly caught up with Staal's immense size and defensive gifts.

His teammates aren't surprised by his overall dominance.

"I've always seen it, ever since I've been here," right wing James Neal said. "I saw it in juniors, too. That talent has always been there. It just gets overshadowed because of how great defensively he is."

Staal's offensive game has never been so diverse. He has scored nine goals this season, and in many different ways. Staal has scored on a couple of one-timers from the slot; he beat Carolina goal Cam Ward with a pretty breakaway move last week; and he fooled the Colorado defense by peeling away from a check and scoring Tuesday on a wicked wrist shot.

The glimpse of supreme goal-scoring ability Staal displayed during a rookie season in which he scored 29 goals is back, five years later, in a more refined, mature manner. Left wing Matt Cooke, a longtime Staal linemate, said the center only needed time.

"I don't think that he's playing in a way that he's never played before," Cooke said. "He's been given a big opportunity to succeed with Sid (center Sidney Crosby) out. He's been put in a position to succeed, and he's been nothing but solid."

Staal will never match the skill of fellow centers Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — few in NHL history can make such a claim — but his performance offensively has reached a different dimension. Clearly more patient with the puck, Staal is executing passes that he wouldn't have attempted a couple of years ago.

Bylsma theorizes that Staal's understanding of his own ability is leading to the maturation of his offensive game.

"Trying to toe-drag is not where he's strong," Bylsma said. "But when he skates and uses his size, it gives him a chance to make plays and go to the net. When he stays in that box, he can show a lot of offensive prowess."

Teams wishing to focus on Crosby and Malkin likely will be burned if they pay Staal no attention.

"Nobody focuses on him scoring goals," defenseman Kris Letang said. "He was a guy who could play 22 minutes a night in all situations. But now when you see his shot, his size, and how he's going to the net, you understand why he's been so good offensively."

To put Staal's surge in perspective, consider that he has scored 19 goals in his past 57 games. In Washington star Alex Ovechkin's past 57 games, he has scored 25 goals. In Malkin's past 57 games, he has scored 23 goals.

Staal is starting to produce like a star, and his intangibles have never been questioned.

"Right now, he is unbelievable," Neal said. "The way he skates, everything. He's at the top of the league in terms of being a shutdown defender. But now, he is offensively as well. He can do it all."

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