The whole debate on whether or not the Hurricanes "won" the Jordan Staal trade will probably go on forever and at this point, I've kind of stopped caring. The Hurricanes wanted to get a top-tier player and paid a big price in order to get Jordan. After last season, most would consider this trade a big loss for the Hurricanes because Jordan didn't have the big "breakout" season that everyone was hoping for. Not that 30 points in 48 games is anything to scoff at, seeing how it would be pro-rated to 50-51 points over 82 games, but the general consensus was that Jordan didn't make much of an impact in his first year with the Canes.
Players are always going to be judged by goals and points, especially by outsiders, but anyone who keeps up with this blog knows that I thought Jordan had a better year than most would indicate. Mostly because of all of his contributions that didn't show up on the scoresheet (killing penalties, making the Canes a better possession team, etc.) but still, more offense is going to be expected from him now that he is entering the first year of his ten-year, $60 mil. contract.
This season, most of the talk around Jordan has been positive. He has been one of the Hurricanes best forwards this year and his line with Nathan Gerbe & Patrick Dwyer was the only thing the Canes had going for them over the few few games. He has also contributed nicely on both special teams units and is a big reason why the Canes PK looks drastically improved compared to last year. His all-around play has been so good that you wouldn't know that he has only two points in nine games.
Again, I hate using that as a basis to judge a player but there is more expected out of the former Pittsburgh Penguin this season and that means he will need to produce more offensively. Personally, I think that the goals and points will come to Staal as long as he keeps doing what he is doing (driving the play, creating chances, etc.), but he may need some help from both his teammates and the coaching staff to really have a breakout year.
For most of his career in Pittsburgh, Staal was used as a third line center and was stuck with grinders like Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke as his linemates. Despite that, Staal produced at a first line rate at even strength relative to his ice time and everyone thought he could have a huge season with more ice time in better linemates. Last year, he was sort of put in that situation as the Canes used him as a second line center with Jeff Skinner as one of his wingers for most of the year. His numbers ended up being disappointing relative to expectations and Kirk Muller is trying some new things with him this year.
Jordan is still getting second line minutes and a decent amount of time on both special teams units, but his role at even strength is much more extreme than it was last year. As one of the best two-way centers in the league, Staal is no stranger to playing hard matchups and Muller is using this to the Canes advantage by burying him in the defensive zone against other team's top lines. Staal was used this way in Pittsburgh and it appears Muller is taking a page out of their book and amplifying it.
The Hurricanes first and third lines are basically getting the Sedin treatment now, taking a good majority of their draws in the offensive zone while Jordan's line is getting all of the tough assignments. This is a way for the coaching staff to get the most out of their best players and over the last few games, it has been working. Both Eric Staal & Alexander Semin have been winning the possession battle, something they had trouble doing last season, and they are starting to find the back of the net more often too. Meanwhile, Jeff Skinner currently leads the team in points despite and has exploited a lot of favorable matchups on the Hurricanes "third line." Where does that leave Jordan, though?
Like I said earlier, he is currently stuck in a tough minute role and his ability to drive the play hasn't been affected much at all, despite him being buried in the defensive zone. Both him and Nathan Gerbe have formed some nice chemistry together and the puck is always moving in the right direction whenever they are on the ice. Unfortunately, it hasn't resulted in them producing many points and not all of it is their fault.
It's difficult for them to score when they are constantly being forced to fight an uphill battle by the coaching staff and it's even more difficult for Jordan to score when he has to play with guys like Patrick Dwyer & Radek Dvorak on his wing. Both are nice players and have done a good job for the Canes, but they would be third or fourth liners on a contending team. Gerbe has good enough offensive instincts to stay on this line for now, but the Canes need to find a better right winger for Jordan if they want to get the full value out of him. Jordan showed in Pittsburgh that he can make the most out of sub-par linemates, but there is only so much offense he can create if he is going to be used in this type of role with these linemates.
What should Muller and company do about it, though? One option is to put Ruutu or Skinner on this line since they are the ones scoring right now, but Muller's going to have to give Jordan some more offensive opportunities in order to make that work. You can't shelter everyone, but neither Skinner or Ruutu are fit for an extreme defensive role. Someone like Nash, Lindholm or Sutter may have to take over some of Jordan's defensive responsibilities if that's the case, which honestly doesn't sound like a bad idea right now.
Not that Jordan isn't cut out for the role he's being used in now, but if the Canes want to get the most out of him offensively, not forcing him to take over 60% of his draws in the defensive zone will be a nice start. They might want to shelter Ruutu, Tlusty, Skinner, etc. but you can't shelter all of your best offensive players and one of these three may need to step up to tougher minutes if the team wants to add a scorer to Jordan's line.