Pens' Jordan Staal no longer 'robotic'
The stylistic changes that invariably take place after a coaching change can have a positive effect on a player.
In Jordan Staal's case, it may have speeded his ascent to superstardom.
Staal, now entering his fourth NHL season, has benefited greatly from coach Dan Bylsma's up-tempo system, and many believe he is about to blossom into the team's third world-class center.
"I feel good about my game," Staal said. "It's nice not feeling like a robot out there."
Indeed, Staal did not have a strong affection for former coach Michel Therrien's defensive system. His game improved under Bylsma, and Staal's teammates believe last season's outstanding play was only the beginning for the 21-year-old.
"Whatever it takes," Penguins right wing Bill Guerin said, "Jordan's got it. The talent, the maturity. It's all there, and he's only going to get better."
Stars are often measured by statistics, but many of the Penguins insist Staal can't be judged by numbers. His ability to control play in all three zones is rare for any player, especially one so young.
"From an outsider's standpoint, he is viewed as a third-liner," Bylsma said. "That's not how we look at it. He can dominate a game in so many ways."
Still, for Staal to become fully appreciated, his offensive production must become more consistent. He scored 29 goals (seven of them shorthanded) his rookie season, only to follow with a disappointing 12 goals the following year.
His third season, buoyed by Bylsma's introduction to a more aggressive style, saw Staal produce 22 goals and a career-high 27 assists.
Guerin and Evgeni Malkin are the only Penguins to score 40 goals in a season, but they could soon have company.
"You don't like to push numbers on people," Guerin said. "But with Jordan, it's going to happen at some point. He's got all the tools. The goals will come."
While Crosby and Malkin entered the NHL with sublime offensive gifts but needed to work on their defense, Staal was the opposite. Defense has always come naturally to Staal, but his offensive skills have required refining.
"My offensive game is still a work in progress," Staal said. "I know I can get better with the puck, and I think I will."
And when Staal does get better with the puck, he can expect to see power-play time with the first unit. For the time being, Guerin and Chris Kunitz will do the dirty work in front of the net on the top power play while Staal controls the second unit.
Bylsma envisions a time when Staal is a fixture on the top power play.
"When his game evolves, he'll be better in the offensive zone," Bylsma said. "He will learn to protect the puck better and will be a dominating presence around the net. I would think if he continues to improve, he will get more power-play time."
While improved statistics might get Staal more attention around the league - and many believe his numbers are about to take a serious jump - his teammates remain convinced the center is already a star. His defensive ability and penchant for scoring big goals, like the Game 4 shorthanded tally that changed the course of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, is too much evidence to ignore.
Matt Cooke, who skates on the same line with Staal, appreciates his center's diverse ability.
"He already is a great player in this league," Cooke said. "He will start scoring even more. He can pretty much do it all."
Staal's career stats:
2006-07: 29 goals, 13 assists, 42 points
2007-08: 12 goals, 16 assists, 28 points
2008-09: 22 goals, 27 assists, 49 points