Lately, after his hatchet job on Evgeni Malkin, columnist Ron Cook isn't a favorite among the fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Perhaps it's just a good story, or perhaps it's an effort to build up some good will, but Cook's latest piece was about Jordan Staal becoming the youngest player in NHL history to play in 300 NHL regular season games. Ever.
Let's take a look at Jordan's accomplishments and journey after the jump:
Jordan Staal has been a jack of all trades. As an 18 year old in 2006-07, he mainly played wing on the second line with fellow rookie Evgeni Malkin. Staal would put up 29 goals and 42 points and Malkin would score 85 points en route to the Calder trophy for rookie of the year.
Being in the shadows would be nothing new for Jordan; after all just days before he was drafted older brother Eric Staal led the Carolina Hurricanes in scoring in the regular and post-season for a Stanley Cup winning team at the tender age of just 21. Compared to his draft year rivals, J. Staal was overshadowed by more skilled offensive players like Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom and Phil Kessel. Penguins general manager Ray Shero had his pick of the litter at #2 overall (after the St. Louis Blues took defenseman Erik Johnson number one overall) and he chose Staal.
From the beginning, it was evident that Staal was different than his fellow highly regarded forwards. While Toews and Kessel would play in the NCAA the following season, and Backstrom remained in Sweden, Staal was the only one who made an NHL club out of the following training camp. Standing every bit of 6'4 and 220 pounds even at 18 years old, Staal was a physical freak. His junior stats weren't eye-catching; he scored at just a point per game rate and only 28 goals in 68 games with the Peterborough. But his all-around game was far superior by those much older and more experienced than those he'd face at the NHL level.
Staal only played just an average of 14:56 his rookie season, but his PK time per game was 3:02 a night. Better, by advanced stats, Staal had a better 4 on 5 +/- among any skater on the team.
The sophomore season of 2007-08 would be the classic "slump" for Jordan. His plus/minus went from a +5 to a -5. His points would drop from 49 to 28. However, the Penguins run to the Stanley Cup finals would be a turning point. Staal scored six goals in the second season, Staal would be second only behind Malkin on the team in goals. Four of those goals came against the arch-rival Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference finals. By then, if there was any doubts, Staal was on the map as a prime-time player.
The 2008-09 season saw Staal on the final year of his entry level contract, and he was firmly entrenched as the 3rd line center and a key building block to the team's success. Trade rumors swirled around -- as the Penguins acquired Marian Hossa the previous season -- and perhaps they'd deal Staal since they might not be able to sign him, considering they had $17.4 million a season locked up in salaries for top two line centers Malkin and Sidney Crosby. GM Shero, who's first pick was Staal all along, had no thoughts of that, as he rewarded the budding center with a four year, $16 million dollar contract.
Pittsburgh would win the Stanley Cup, aided largely by a game-tying short handed goal by Staal in Game 4 that many felt turned the tide on the whole series. Staal would play 19:13 per game in that playoff run, behind only Crosby and Malkin amongst forwards. His legacy was formed.
Constency would be another trait. Staal currently has played in 275 straight regular season game, in fact to this point he's appeared in 300 of a possible 301 games since 2006-07, the only scratch being of the healthy variety early in his rookie campaign. Even when his nose exploded on a puck, he'd get stitched up and return later in the game, the most visible of bumps and bruises along the 300 game path.
Jordan Staal doesn't have the pure skill of Jonathan Toews. He's not as slick of an offensive player with gifted playmaking abilities like Nicklas Backstrom. And he doesn't have the shot or offensive instinct that Phil Kessel has. But none of those guys are the classic 3rd line center that can kill penalties 4 minutes a night and anchor a unit. None of those guys will be making less than $4 million a year starting next season either, for that matter. Staal was and is the right guy for the right team at the right time.
No one has played 300 games quicker than Jordan Staal. In history. Ever. No player has done the dirty work to reach the highest of highs as young as Staal has. He's won the Cup at an age where he's too young (in the States) to legally drink from it. He's not as polished as some, but given the end results, the Penguins were lucky to make the pick.
Jordan Staal is still a young 21 year old. It's not a stretch to imagine that he's got at least another 15 NHL seasons in front of him. The best, as scary as it might seem, is still to come, for the man who's reached plateaus quicker and earlier than any other man to ever be in the NHL.