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Penguins will be wise to keep Jordan Staal in NHL

Posted: Thursday October 26, 2006 12:04PM; Updated: Thursday October 26, 2006 12:21PM
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Staal enjoyed a two-goal outing in a win over the Blue Jackets on October 21.
Staal enjoyed a two-goal outing in a win over the Blue Jackets on October 21.
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Ask any parent. Having kids around can be so rewarding, but it demands the occasional tough decision.

Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero is working on one of those decisions right now. The situation keeping him awake nights: what to do with junior-eligible center Jordan Staal? Return him to Peterborough, where he can play 20-plus minutes a night on the first line -- and save the Penguins some contract hassles down the line -- or keep him in Pittsburgh, where he's performed admirably in a limited role?

Because I appreciate as well as anybody what lack of sleep can do to a man, let me give you a hand with this one, Ray: This call should be based on hockey, not business. The kid belongs in black and gold.

Shero doesn't have long to make up his mind. He'll have to determine Staal's fate after Saturday's game against the struggling Flyers. That'll be the Pens' ninth contest of the young season. Playing in the 10th, on Nov. 1 against Los Angeles, is a critical moment because it burns the first year of Staal's three-year entry-level deal. That's true whether the young center is then sent back to juniors after he plays in one more NHL game or sticks it out for all 82.

And remember: Going back to juniors isn't like being sent to the minors. Once he's back with Peterborough, he's there for the season.

It says a lot about Staal that this has even become an issue. The team had high hopes for him from the moment he was selected at this year's entry draft, but they were of the long-term variety. The plan was to have Staal come to camp, take part in a couple preseason tilts and then develop for another year with the Petes. No rush.

But Staal had other ideas. Given the chance, he outworked more experienced players in camp and forced his way onto the opening night roster.

In each of his eight games since, Staal has made an impact with the speed and innate hockey sense that made him the second overall pick. He's scored four goals -- tied for both the team lead and tops among all rookies. His defensive maturity has earned him a role on Pittsburgh's second penalty kill unit, where he's scored three shorties. And coach Michel Therrien has trusted him with the kind of last-minute, game-on-the-line time that typically is handed to only the most battle-hardened veterans.

There's no denying that Staal has been one of Pittsburgh's 12 best forwards. Still, he's averaging fewer than 13 minutes per game, and he's winning just 39 percent of his draws -- a pretty lousy mark for a defensive center. Those numbers could be used to justify a return to juniors. At the same time, elite players need to be challenged to improve. After watching Staal's progression since the season opener, it's apparent that the only challenge awaiting him in Peterborough is a slot with Team Canada at the World Junior Championships in December.

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