The rankings of this list were based on a number of different factors which are not limited to talent, potential, experience, how high their supposed ceiling is and what they have done so far in all of their respective leagues. With all of those factors in mind, the one final question I had going through my head when rankings these players was, If I was starting a franchise, which player would I be most likely to build a team around? That player ended up being one of the newest members of the Hurricanes, Jordan Staal.
Now, this wasn’t an easy decision to make at all because you could probably make a case for Jeff Skinner being the best player in the organization under 25 years of age. His offensive upside and tremendous goal-scoring talent also makes him a more attractive candidate to build a franchise around. After all, he scored more goals and points in his rookie season than Jordan Staal has ever tallied in a total season, and that was when Skinner was only 18 years old. Skinner is also the kind of player who will get the fans more excited because he has a flashier skillset and is known to show up on the highlight reels on a regular basis. So what made me give Staal the nod over Skinner? Because when it comes down to it, he is the better all-around player right now and hasn’t even hit his best years.
Even though he was primarily a third line center with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Jordan Staal has had a lot of believers out there. There are many who say that he would be a first line center on most teams and he would be more recognized around the league if he wasn’t already playing on a club with two of the premiere centers in the NHL. Some might blow off these statements but they aren’t completely off-base. Staal has gotten his chance to play big minutes with the Penguins over the last couple of seasons with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby battling injuries and he has performed well offensively when put into those situations. Staal’s 30 points in 42 games during the 2010-11 season would equate to approximately 58 points over a full-82 game season and his 50 points in 62 games last season would translate to 66 points had he been healthy the entire year. Those aren’t star-like numbers but they would be good enough to fit on just about any team’s top-six and maybe even some team’s top lines. Staal has also produced over 2 points per 60 minutes at even strength in three of the last five seasons, so there is no denying that he has top-six potential.
I’m not sure what the chances are of Staal breaking out offensively within the next couple of years (the shooting percentage gods were very kind to him last season) but one thing I do know is that he is going to help the Hurricanes improve their overall territorial game. What makes Staal such a special talent is his ability to score at a top-six rate while playing against some of the toughest minutes the Penguins could give him. Staal was essentially used in a shutdown role by Pittsburgh’s coaching staff the last three years and he managed to win the battle at even strength convincingly. He has been in the double digits in corsi differential in two of the last three seasons and that is without getting any sort of zone start push from the coaching staff.
Staal is the type of player who can take tough draws, drive the play forward and be able to keep the puck pinned in the offensive zone once he gets it there. The Hurricanes have desperately needed a player like this for the last few seasons since they have been an extremely poor possession team since their last trip to the playoffs. Some might say that the Canes this type of player in Brandon Sutter, who they traded to Pittsburgh in order to acquire Staal, and while it’s true that Sutter played a similar role to Staal, the latter is a better all-around player and has much more offensive talent. Staal gives the Hurricanes that strong, possession center who they have been missing for the last few years. Him along with his brother Eric are going to give the Hurricanes an excellent one-two punch down the middle for years to come.
The other thing that makes a player like Staal valuable is the advantage he can create for other teammates. Him being able to win the battle at even strength while playing tough minutes frees up easier zone starts for the likes of Eric Staal, Tuomo Ruutu, Alex Semin and Jeff Skinner, which could possibly lead to higher offensive outputs from those players. Just look at the results James Neal and Evgeni Malkin had last season. Now, the Hurricanes don’t have anyone as talented as those two, so their numbers may not be as gaudy, but I think Eric Staal and Skinner could do some significant damage with a zone start push. Skinner has been getting that for his first two years in the NHL and Staal could possibly help continue this trend if he continues to do what he did in Pittsburgh.
This brings up a good question, though. Can Staal continue to dominate territorially at even strength while playing on a weaker team? The Pens have been one of the best possession teams in the league since Dan Bylsma took over and the Hurricanes have been mediocre to bad since 2009. I am confident that Staal, along with Alexander Semin, will be able to tilt the ice in the Hurricanes favor and improve their underlying numbers. Although, one thing I’m not certain about is his ability to drive the play at as high of a rate as he did in Pittsburgh. He wasn’t playing with the stars there but he was playing with a pretty solid territorial player in Tyler Kennedy, aka “The Shot Machine.” Kennedy is another player who is able to push the play north with relative ease and could have played a role in Staal’s strong underlying numbers, but I think he should be fine without him. The Hurricanes may not have an elite possession-driver to play on Staal’s wing, but they have more than enough guys who should be able to get the job done in that role. I am sure that Staal will enjoy getting to play alongside some more offensively talented linemates on a regular basis, too.
It is really hard to believe that Staal is only 23 years old when you look at everything he has accomplished in his career. He has loads of playoff experience including helping the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2009, he has been nominated for a Selke, he’s already established himself as a legitimate tough-minutes center and was one of the Penguins’ top penalty killing forwards. That’s quite a resume for someone who isn’t even in the prime of his career. Sure, Staal had the luxury of playing on one of the best franchises of the last few years but he was one of the reasons why those Pens teams were so good. He may have been just the “third line center” on the depth chart but it’s clear that he made a very big impact in Pittsburgh during his six years with the club and still shows a tremendous amount of promise. This is why the Hurricanes made a huge push to get him and it is also why I believe he is the best player in the organization under 25 years of age.