If Jordan Staal ever stopped to think about it, he could claim to be the world’s worst victim of middle-child syndrome.
Growing up in Thunder Bay, Ont., Staal was third in the hockey family’s lineage behind oldest brother Eric, the Carolina Hurricanes’ resident star and captain, and No. 2 brother Marc, a top-four defenceman with the New York Rangers.
Jordan, 23, managed to shine as well in junior hockey and get some attention when he was taken second overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2006 NHL entry draft. But when he arrived in Pittsburgh it was back to No. 3 again. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the superstar centres, leaving Staal the modest duties of centring the checking line, killing penalties and anything else that needed cleaning up.
With the Philadelphia Flyers concentrating their shut-down efforts on Malkin and Crosby, with Malkin held to two goals in five games in their first-round playoff series, Staal became the go-to guy for the Penguins. He and linemates Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy took on a more offensive role, culminating in the tying and winning goals in Friday’s 3-2 decision that gave the Penguins two consecutive wins in the best-of-seven series after falling behind 3-0.
Now, with the series headed back to Philadelphia and yet another do-or-die game for the Penguins, Staal found himself leading the NHL’s postseason points race before Saturday’s games with nine in five games. Not bad, considering Staal’s respectable but modest 50 points in the regular season. But being the centre of attention does not seem to be something Staal enjoys.
“I don’t know if that’s part of it,” Staal said in a low monotone about shaking his wallflower status as the younger brother and No. 3 centre. “I’m just trying to play as well as I can.”
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma says Staal “is not trying to get noticed. He’s trying to win.”
When the Penguins, down 2-1 after the first period on Friday night, needed a spark, Staal “and his line stepped up. They made huge plays and scored huge goals for our team,” Bylsma said.
However, that doesn’t mean Staal will be taking any ice time from Malkin or Crosby in Game 6 on Sunday. He plays his usual 20 minutes or so because under Bylsma each centre has his role and that doesn’t change even if one of them is out of the lineup.
“There are different roles and different opportunities for each of them in their time on the ice,” Bylsma said. “If [either Crosby or Malkin]is out, Jordan still gets around 20, 21 minutes.”
Staal himself says he is playing with that in mind.
“It’s nice to contribute offensively but I’m not changing anything or doing anything different,” he said. “I was fortunate to get a few and help the team to win.
“We have a good team, a lot of good players. Different players are going to step up at different times. That’s what good teams have if you want to win in the playoffs.”
Staal’s linemate Matt Cooke points out that is often the way of the postseason.
“Playoffs are a weird time of year,” he said. “It’s not the same guy every night. It’s not like the regular season where you impose your will and go, do what you did for 82 games. You bring out the best in everybody and every play has that much more attention to detail and awareness so it’s not the same guys [shining]every night.”
At the end of next season, Staal will have the chance to break out of his supporting role. He will become an unrestricted free agent at the age of 24, which will make him a prized commodity in the NHL’s annual shopping frenzy.
Staal will then have to decide if he is happy playing third banana to two superstars or become the No. 1 man somewhere else. While he isn’t talking about such things in the middle of the playoffs, it is not a decision as easy as it appears.
Moving on to be No. 1 means Staal would now face the opposition’s best players every night instead of the third and fourth lines most of the time. Then again, as the Penguins’ checking centre, Staal already sees a lot of the top players so it might be a challenge worth pursuing.