Staal center of attention

As the Philadelphia Flyers made mincemeat out of the Pittsburgh Penguins through the first three games of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, the rumbling and grumbling around the Penguins team began in earnest.

What would they do in the offseason?

Who would be pushed over the side after such an embarrassing turn?

At the center, if you'll pardon the pun, of the discussion was whether the Penguins would sacrifice their incredible depth down the middle, a model that had served them so well in 2008 and 2009, to improve their team overall.

More to the point, if GM Ray Shero decided that he needed to make a bold move, a la the Philadelphia Flyers of last summer when Flyers GM Paul Holmgren traded two centerpiece players in captain Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, which of the big three -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal -- would be the likely candidate should such a bold move be considered?

The simple answer to that rhetorical question: Jordan Staal.

What makes the discussion more compelling is that while Staal might be the most likely to be peeled off from the big three, he is also the one who has taken a star turn in keeping the Penguins alive in the playoffs.

The 24-year-old Staal will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season and possesses all of the attributes that make GMs drool: size, toughness, good hands and a terrific defensive game, and he's still arcing toward the prime of his career.

There is also a sense of the unknown about Staal, the second-overall pick in the 2006 draft. For much of his time in Pittsburgh, Staal has played in the shadow of the marquee centers, Crosby and Malkin. Malkin is coming off his second scoring title and will likely earn his first Hart Trophy this season. Crosby's exploits are well-known and he remains one of the top players in the world.

A former NHL head coach was discussing Staal recently and wondered aloud if Staal would thrive if suddenly thrust into a No. 1 center role in a place like Toronto, or is he truly better suited to playing a strong supporting role, as is the case in Pittsburgh?

More to the point, does he crave that kind of role?

In this moment, Staal is crucial to the Pens' hopes of a historic comeback.

After scoring three times in Wednesday's 10-3 victory, Staal was once again a force in Game 5 on Friday. He scored his league-leading sixth postseason goal, which tied the game at 2, then helped set up the winning goal by linemate Tyler Kennedy a few minutes later.

Staal has now recorded points in all five of his postseason games this spring. His nine points are second only to Philadelphia's Claude Giroux.

"We needed a big play and his line stepped up," coach Dan Bylsma said.

"Huge, huge plays and huge goals for our team, and especially at a point in the game when we were behind in the period. He came up big in other ways too in the game, came up big in the third period, came up big in the penalty kill."

His play in Game 5, charging down the right side and firing a laser past Philadelphia netminder Ilya Bryzgalov, was reminiscent of his play during the 2009 Stanley Cup finals. Then, as now, he was the best forward for the Penguins working doggedly at both ends of the ice.

"I think last game, with guys out, we got a little more opportunity, and he played unbelievable and shot the puck in opportunities where I think earlier in the year he was trying to make a play," linemate Matt Cooke said.

"No different [in Game 5], we're on a 2-on-1, he's tried to pass that one to me a couple of times and not gone so well. I told him, you get the chance, shoot the puck. I'll be there to bang in the empty-net rebound. So far, so good, he hasn't missed yet."

Staal grows noticeably less talkative when the issue of the three-center conundrum comes up and whether it annoys him. It's certainly not the first time the topic has been discussed and it won't be the last. But it doesn't mean he likes it or will entertain questions about it.

"We've got a good team; a lot of good players. Different players are going to step up at times. That's what good teams have to have if you want to play in the playoffs," he said Saturday before the team departed for Philadelphia.
"I'm just trying to play as well as I can."

The discussion over Staal's value in this series is in stark contrast to the play of Malkin, who has been neutralized by rookie center Sean Couturier. Yes, he has his points, seven, but he has not been the game-changer he was during the regular season, when he led the league in scoring and had 50 goals. In Game 5, he took a couple minor penalties and appeared frustrated.

For Bylsma, handling all three of his big centers comes with its challenges, but they bring different qualities to the table that makes marshaling them less daunting.

"Certainly different roles, different players, different opportunities on the ice for them. It is interesting, really. The time on ice doesn't change a lot, whether they're in the lineup or whether they're not in the lineup. Their roles, who they play against, don't really change a lot if it's just one or all three in the lineup," Bylsma said.

"They each play a significant role for our team. They each kind of get different matchups and different opportunities but they all are very good and elite players in their own right and all at the center position."

Given Staal's emergence once again as a go-to guy, some might suggest the talk of changing one of the defining characteristics of this Pittsburgh team is moot. If Staal continues to play this way, there might be a lot more time to debate it this spring.