Jordan Staal is a cool customer, but he’s not going to pretend.
When the NHL schedule came out last month for the shortened season, he scrolled down to find out just when he would first be facing his former teammates from Pittsburgh.
"I definitely looked," Staal told ESPN.com this week. "There’s a few games that you check out, whether that’s against the Rangers [against brother Marc Staal] or against Pittsburgh. I was real excited about this game. It was certainly in the back of my mind."
Staal doesn’t actually return to Pittsburgh for the first time until the regular-season finale April 27, but facing his former buddies Thursday night will be a special event nonetheless. These are the guys he grew up with after breaking into the NHL as an 18-year-old seven years ago. These are the guys he won a Stanley Cup with in 2009.
"It’s going to be a lot of fun, I know that for sure," Staal said.
"That’s a good question," Staal said when asked who he thought would do the most chirping at him on the ice. "I played with TK and Cookie for a long time. It’s going to be interesting and a unique experience for myself. It’s going to be a lot of fun. Hopefully, we can shut up their chirping by winning the game."
Let’s be real here. Staal is going to want to have a big game for all kinds of reasons. He left Pittsburgh because he knew he could never be a front-line center behind Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Now he has that opportunity in Carolina, riding shotgun with his brother Eric Staal as a one-two punch as center that teams not named the Penguins would only dream of.
While Staal might never say it quite in this fashion, you bet there’s going to be a lot of pride on the line Thursday night as he gets to not only face off against his former team but also show it the new version of himself as an offensive center, not the third-line checker he was for most of his time in Pittsburgh.
"Obviously, my role is a little bigger in Carolina, more opportunity to play in different scenarios. It’s a very exciting time," said Staal.
It’s why Penguins GM Ray Shero understood what needed to be done once Staal turned down a 10-year, $60 million contract extension in June. Even though Staal still had one more year left on his deal this season and wasn’t going to be an unrestricted free agent until this upcoming summer, Shero wasn’t going to waste an entire season letting things play out. If a player is turning down $60 million over 10 years, it’s clear this wasn’t about money.
"We had lots of conversations with him and his agent at the end of the year," Shero told ESPN.com this week. "It was hard to appease him in terms of where he was wanting to go with his career. It had nothing to do with the organization or the city; he loved it in Pittsburgh. But assuming with a healthy Crosby and Malkin, he was wondering where he fit in with his role, and I think that’s really what it came down to. He never asked for a trade. But after we made the offer, which he appreciated, he thought about it for a while and his role here."
Being in Carolina was what Jordan wanted.
"To be able to play alongside Eric was important," said Staal. "Pittsburgh offered that deal, but being able to play with Eric would have been slim and none [had he signed it]. It was a time in my career when I could make decisions for myself."
Once Staal turned down the offer, Shero didn’t waste any time.
"It didn’t make sense for me to wait," said the Pens GM. "I didn’t want him going to the end of the contract. There were smoke signals about Carolina. I have no problem with what happened. Jordan handled it with class, and I have nothing but good things to say about him. He had six great years here."
Veteran Carolina GM Jim Rutherford had read this situation beforehand and approached Shero about his interest last spring. He had heard rumors in the past that the Staal brothers had always wanted to play together in the NHL, so he focused on his target. But Rutherford didn’t think it was going to happen as quickly as it did.
"I was a little bit surprised to get the call," Rutherford told ESPN.com this week. "About three hours before the draft, Ray phoned me and said he was going forward and making the move. It all happened really quick. But we had had several [internal] conversations and meetings about the possibility of a trade, so we were ready to offer what we ultimately offered in order to acquire him."
Staal was dealt to Carolina on June 22 just before the first round in exchange for Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin and Carolina's first-round choice in that night’s draft. (Pittsburgh took Derrick Pouliot.)
"I basically told Jimmy what I thought was a fair deal, and we hammered it out pretty quickly," said Shero.
The Hurricanes gave up three assets to get their man. Given Jordan’s desire to join his brother in Carolina, there was the opportunity for Rutherford to lowball Shero, given Pittsburgh’s apparent lack of leverage. But Rutherford never once entertained that thought.
"There’s several things that could have happened," said Rutherford. "First of all, he’s got two brothers in this league. So there possibly could have been another team involved. Or with Jordan not having a no-trade clause, Ray could have traded him anywhere, potentially to a big market. Then perhaps that team tries to persuade Jordan over that year to stay there and sign. So this wasn’t a situation that you want to play hardball with when there’s other things that could have happened. We negotiated a deal a couple of hours before the draft. It was a fair and professional negotiation, and we paid what we had to pay to get a player we really wanted."
Sources confirmed at the time that the Rangers and Penguins did talk regarding Jordan Staal, but a deal between divisional rivals would have cost the Blueshirts undoubtedly more than what Carolina paid.
Talk about a day Staal will never forget. On his wedding day in his native Thunder Bay, Ontario, he gets dealt to brother Eric’s team.
"A lot of emotion that day, for sure. It was a great night," said Staal.
"I’m very happy for him and for his family," said Shero. "It’s a great place to play. It’s a nice story and I wish him all the success."
In Carolina, Staal has cherished taking on a bigger role, and the Hurricanes have been impressed with his impact.
"The No. 1 thing is that [coach] Kirk [Muller] can roll out two big centers," said Rutherford. "But also, anytime you can get a center of Jordan’s style that can skate and play in all situations, it’s a real big addition to our team. But on that top of that, in a compressed season, and I really see it sometimes now, when we’re playing three games in four nights or back-to-back nights, I’ve seen in the past when we would wear down a little bit; those are times when Jordan is going even stronger. He can play over 20 minutes a game in all situations, and he’s strong enough to play in situations that are difficult for some players."
On Thursday night, Jordan Staal will line up against Crosby. It’s one thing to have done it in practice over the years. Now it’s the real deal. Front-line center versus front-line center.
Bring it on.
"He was a lot of fun to play with," Staal said of No. 87. "It’s exciting to have watched him from the bench over the years. Now to try and defend him and keep him off the score sheet, that’s a huge challenge but one that I’m looking forward to and our whole team is looking forward to."