Staal takes veteran under wing
Sykora, 30, appreciates the assistance from 19-year-old forward
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
During a couple down moments between drills at Penguins practice yesterday, Jordan Staal conferred with new teammate and even newer linemate Petr Sykora. They exchanged thoughts, hand gestures and nods.
"We were just working on little things that make the team better, off the draws and stuff," Staal said afterward. "We're doing most of the same stuff, but [Sykora] wasn't here last year."
Imagine a 19-year-old who has once again been asked to shuffle from center to left wing, this time on his team's top forward line, helping explain the whys and wherefores of the Penguins' forechecking strategies to a 30-year-old veteran who broke into the NHL when Staal was barely 7 and has scored more NHL goals (247) than Staal has lived in months (229).
Sykora, a right winger, was happy for the chance to work on the new line's chemistry.
"I've been in the league for a while, and I try to get used to new players as soon as possible," said Sykora, who signed with the Penguins in July and was united with Staal Monday when coach Michel Therrien reshaped his four lines following a roster cut. "It's a good fit for us."
Especially when the center is reigning NHL scoring champion Sidney Crosby.
At the beginning of training camp, Therrien said he liked Staal at his natural position, center. Once the roster was settled and with the season opener Friday at Carolina fast approaching, the coach had a change in philosophy.
Although he played a lot on the wing as a rookie last year, Staal expects he'll need a period of adjustment, one that could be accelerated by the caliber of his linemates.
"It's pretty easy to play left wing with two players like that," he said.
Staal has made a lot of things look easy.
A year ago, he was considered a long shot to make the team out of training camp since he was just a few weeks past his 18th birthday and a few months beyond being selected second overall in the draft.
But he did. He also made it beyond the NHL's 10-game window for being returned to his junior team.
He went on to become a finalist for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, had 29 goals, 42 points, and set all kinds of league standards for rookies and young players.
Staal set rookie records and led the league with seven short-handed goals and a .221 shooting percentage. He led his team with a plus-minus rating of plus-16. He became the youngest NHL player to score two short-handed goals in a game, to score on a penalty shot and to get a hat trick. He was the third-youngest to reach 20 goals, the fifth-youngest to score in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
And yet just about a year ago, he was in the same position as defenseman Kris Letang -- a young player just trying to keep his head above water in training camp and have a shot to make the team. Both were on the opening-night roster, but Letang was returned to junior during the 10-game window.
This year, Letang did not survive the cut Monday and was sent to the minor leagues.
"It's a tough spot trying to make this team, especially with the players we have right now," Staal said. "As for me, I still have to keep playing like [I did last season]; otherwise, I could get sent down, too."
He's far from that right now, skating on the top line.
At 6 feet 4, 220 pounds and possibly still filling out, Staal gives the No. 1 line a heaping helping of size that could be useful, especially if he can establish himself in front of the net to chip in goals, tie up defensemen and distract goaltenders.
"That's going to be a big part of his job, to create some room in front of the net," Crosby said. "I'm sure that's what he expects to do."
Sure, as long as he doesn't get overwhelmed by the idea of skating with probably the world's best player.
"I think most players are kind of nervous with him," Staal said of Crosby. "Obviously, he's going to find you. It's just a matter of finding openings."
NOTES -- Vancouver claimed defenseman Mike Weaver off waivers. Weaver, who signed as a free agent in the summer, was exposed to waivers Monday when the Penguins reassigned him to their Wilkes-Barre/Scranton farm team. ... Players and coaches will attend the annual Chamber of Commerce luncheon today at the Marriott City Center.