The NHL isn’t kind to rookie General Managers.
When Ray Shero became Pittsburgh Penguins GM in May 2006, his first order of business was deciding what to do with the second overall pick in the upcoming entry draft. He hadn’t spent much time in amateur scouting as Assistant GM in Nashville the year before and received a handful of tempting offers from
vultures rival GM’s, as he explained to Jeff Marek and Greg Wyshynski a few months ago:
“It was one of those things where I really relied upon the staff that was here, headed by [former head scout] Greg Malone, who did a really good job. Going into that draft you’ve got these proposals coming at you. I just got hired a month earlier, I didn’t know our team that well in Pittsburgh, and I felt there was five real good players that were selected there and we weren’t going to go wrong [by keeping the pick].
Our staff really liked Jordan Staal and that was the guy we picked. We’re really happy with the choice, we won the Stanley Cup with him, and he’s been a really good player in this league and a big part of our hockey team.
But when it comes down to it, you’re a month into the job as a rookie General Manager, teams were offering things that sounded pretty good but I look back at my notes today and I’m really glad I didn’t do any of that stuff.
When in doubt do nothing, as they say sometimes.”
Shero’s laissez-faire approach paid off as Staal has become one of the league’s premier two-way power centers at just 23 years old. He was a Selke Trophy nominee in 2010 and scored at a 33-goal pace last season.
Meanwhile, Derick Brassard (#6 pick to Columbus) and Jonathan Bernier (#11 to Los Angeles) have yet to solidify themselves as elite NHL contributors for the two teams who were reportedly pushing Shero the hardest for the Penguins’ pick in ’06.
It’s difficult to find an NHL player with a comparable skillset to Jordan Staal: 6-foot-4, shutdown center, elite penalty killer, clutch playoff performer, and maybe even 40-goal capabilities. This unique specimen combined with former scoring champions Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin has given Shero an unequaled trio of centers entering their prime — exactly the type of competitive advantage the NHL salary cap was meant to stifle.
Crosby, Malkin, and Staal currently occupy close to $22 million of the Penguins cap space. Shero often refers to this core as the one with which he won a 2009 Stanley Cup, but he fails to mention that Malkin and Staal were each earning less than a million dollars in base salary on entry-level contracts at the time.
The $22 million ‘Hat Trick’ of centers has never won a Cup or even advanced past the second round since that magical run in ’09, but Rick Moldovanyi at The Pensblog points out that few teams have done better over the same stretch of time. Regardless, with Crosby and Staal set to become unrestricted free agents a year from now and both holding enough leverage to command significant raises on the open market, Shero needs to decide whether Staal still offers enough value as a highly-paid center behind Crosby and Malkin.
“With Sidney and Jordan, I’ve been on record consistently saying our plan is sign both players to extensions,” Shero told the crew at NHL Live on Tuesday. “They’re both very important players here for the Penguins and we won Stanley Cups with both, so we’ll see how that plays out over the next little while.”
With the draft scheduled to take place in Pittsburgh this weekend, reports have indicated that Shero has proposals flying at him for Staal, just as he did in 2006.
“I’ve gotten lots of calls on him but I’ve been pretty consistent,” Shero explained. “I’m not looking to trade him. I’m looking to sign him so I’ve not engaged with any trade calls or [exchanged] names with other teams because that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re very fortunate to have these three guys so we’ll have to see how it plays out.”
Under the current salary cap system, unrestricted free agents possess the leverage in contract negotiations, while the team carries the hammer in talks with restricted free agents. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter will have the opportunity to cash in on that UFA leverage in the coming weeks and Crosby and Staal will have their chance to stick it to the Penguins next summer if they choose to do so. At least that’s how the doomsday scenario has been reported in recent months…
But the current salary cap system and CBA expires on September 15. The owners and players’ association are still trying to decide on a date to actually start negotiating a new agreement, so it’s unclear what changes will be forthcoming next season. Why would Shero trade Staal and dismantle his talented trio before seeing how the new CBA changes the landscape?
Who knows — the league could end up incorporating ‘franchise tags’ like the NFL or even abandoning the salary cap system altogether, but free agency is always a guaranteed point of contention.
In exchange for a salary cap and 24-percent salary rollback coming out of the last lockout, the owners threw the NHLPA a bone by lowering the age for unrestricted free agency from 31 to 27 (or after seven NHL seasons). This has allowed players in their prime to cash in on lucrative long-term deals to the point where UFA age is once again expected to be a bargaining chip in upcoming negotiations.
If the age/experience requirements are adjusted upwards or compensation limits are put in place, the leverage pendulum would suddenly swing back in Shero’s favor in negotiations with Staal. The threat of the unknown could be enough to get Crosby and Staal to lock in extensions sooner rather than later.
Regardless of the timeline, Staal will have to decide at some point whether he wants to be part of a Penguins team that also features Crosby and Malkin. The common refrain ringing out across the continent is that Staal is unhappy “playing third fiddle” on and off the ice, but he and his agent Paul Krepelka have never admitted those feelings publicly.
In fact, the legend of Staal as the ‘Best Third Line Center in the NHL’ probably isn’t all that accurate either. Detroit GM Ken Holland described Darren Helm as the “ideal third-line center” yesterday, yet Helm only played 14 minutes a game this season for the Red Wings. Staal averaged over 20 minutes a game this season and hasn’t been in the Helm type of role since early in his career.
Part of that is certainly due to injuries to Crosby and Malkin and the extra opportunity he’s received the past two seasons, but even after Crosby returned for the second time this season and the trio was finally healthy, Staal continued to receive consistent ice time:
After Crosby’s return, Staal may have started most games with Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke flanking his wings on a standard third line, but it rarely remained that way. Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma always made it a point to move Staal up and down the lineup to get him the additional ice time he deserved.
Bylsma would move Malkin to Staal’s wing on the second line when facing teams that lacked two strong pairs of shutdown defensemen. At the end of many periods or late in a game when the Penguins needed a goal, Bylsma would put Crosby, Malkin, and Staal together on an unstoppable scoring line. The value of the three-center model isn’t that it just allows you to have three good lines. It’s that the options and combinations are limitless and tough for any team to gameplan against.
Another complaint that’s often repeated — yet Staal hasn’t actually said — is he never gets a chance to produce offensively on the first powerplay unit. Many argue he would receive this opportunity as a top center in another city and would finally be able to reach his potential.
Staal did only average two minutes of powerplay time per game last season and oftentimes as a member of the second unit, but he’s never given the coaching staff a reason to increase those minutes.
He provides a solid net-front presence that’s always important on the powerplay, but his hands are suspect in tight quarters around the goal and Chris Kunitz already excels in that role.
Staal had the chance to carry the Penguins’ powerplay on his back down the stretch in 2011 after Crosby and Malkin were lost to season-ending injuries. The results were abysmal.
Increasing Staal’s powerplay time would probably also mean shrinking his even-strength or shorthanded minutes, situations when the former Selke Trophy candidate excels.
Staal has repeatedly expressed a desire to stay in Pittsburgh, but maybe there will come a time he changes his mind and wants to become the face of the franchise elsewhere. He just doesn’t strike me at the spotlight-seeking type.
I spoke with Jordan’s brother Marc, a defenseman for the New York Rangers, for over a half an hour after the Winter Classic in January. I don’t think I saw Jordan in front of the post-game media for much longer than that this entire season combined. Jordan is a player that seems more comfortable letting his play on the ice do the talking.
When Staal was peppered with questions after the season as to whether he’d ever like to play with his brother Eric in Carolina or not, he said ‘I’m sure it’d be fun’ and set off two months of speculation that Jordan wanted to be dealt to the Hurricanes. I find it hard to believe that the ultra-competitive Staal wants to be traded to the cellar of the Southeast Division where his linemates are Patrick Dwyer and Chad LaRose in a contract year, just so he can sit next to his brother in the ‘Canes locker room.
Even if Carolina GM Jim Rutherford wanted to take the risk of acquiring Staal with one season (or less) left on his contract, what would he give up that wouldn’t take a chunk out of his already questionable roster depth?
The Penguins will enter next season as the likely favorite to win the Stanley Cup if Crosby can remain healthy. Their weaknesses in this year’s playoffs were size and defensive play, and dealing Staal would mean downgrading the roster in both of those areas.
If a trade eventually does become a possibility, Shero would need to fetch a return including a player or players capable of filling the void left by Staal’s departure. He’d also need to find a suitor with a need at center, ample cap space to re-sign Staal to an extension, and quality depth to offer the Penguins in return. Carolina, Phoenix, Calgary, Toronto, Minnesota, and Florida are all partial fits. If, as we suggested, Shero waits until the new CBA is ironed out, will that ideal suitor even exist or have the flexibility to make the trade?
Staal would certainly have more value to just about every team that doesn’t have a Crosby and Malkin already in the lineup, but that stockpile down the middle is exactly why the Penguins are so difficult to beat. Without Staal they become just another team with two great centers (if Crosby gets injured they’d be even weaker).
Letting Staal play out his contract before losing him for nothing next summer isn’t as crazy as it sounds. The Devils rolled the dice with Zach Parise this season and he got them within two wins of a Stanley Cup.
At the right price, a trade could be argued for anyone on the Penguins roster not named Sidney Crosby, but this is shaping up to be the strongest team in the Ray Shero era. For now, maybe Shero should keep trying to re-sign Staal and heed his own trade advice:
“When in doubt do nothing, as they say sometimes.”