Jordan Staal nearly stayed in Pittsburgh, but family called in Carolina
Jordan Staal was going to stay.
Last June 21, the day before his wedding, he had every intention of signing a contract extension that could have kept him with the Penguins for the next 11 seasons.
It was all there: guaranteed money (about $57 million total), long-term security (a 10-year term), an understanding that his role would continue to expand beyond that of a traditional No. 3 center.
Only one person could have kept Staal from making that commitment to the franchise that made him the second overall pick in 2006.
That person was his oldest brother and best friend, Eric, who plainly offered that if Jordan Staal accepted this offer there was no chance they could ever play together.
The Staal brothers were teammates with the Carolina Hurricanes the next day.
Penguins general manager Ray Shero stepped onto the stage at the NHL Entry Draft and announced a trade to the crowd at Consol Energy Center: Staal to Carolina for center Brandon Sutter, defensive prospect Brian Dumoulin and the eighth pick, used on defenseman Derrick Pouliot.
Staal was marrying his wife, Heather, while Shero and Hurricanes counterpart Jim Rutherford finalized the deal in Shero’s office.
“I was really hoping it wouldn’t be like that,” Jordan Staal said Monday, an off-day in Washington for the Hurricanes.
“I really hadn’t thought about leaving Pittsburgh until that day, and then everything happened so fast.”
Clearing the air
Staal, who signed a 10-year deal worth $60 million in July, will face his former teammates for the first time Thursday night when the Penguins play the Hurricanes at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C.
He is not sure if the first time will prove any more memorable than his return to Pittsburgh on April 27.
His guess is that playing against the Penguins will never “get normal.”
He does not want to think about a possible Stanley Cup playoff showdown or a future NHL alignment that would place the Hurricanes and Penguins in the same division.
These days, Staal is just trying to keep his new nickname a secret – Eric, having been in Carolina, had dibs on “Staalsy” – and hoping to clear the air about some misconceptions from his six-year tenure with the Penguins.
• On his relationship with Penguins centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin:
“It was very good. There was definitely no animosity. I don’t know where that talk came from. I respect them as people as much as hockey players, but I learned a lot from Sid and Geno. The way they carried themselves and played to win every night. Also, Brooks (Orpik) and some of those other guys, what they did off the ice to be ready every night. I learned a lot – a lot – from those guys in Pittsburgh, and Sid and Geno were a big part of that.”
• On wanting to be “The Guy”:
“(Laughs) I don’t know if I ever am. Even here, Eric has been on a tear to start the season. I don’t think I’ve ever used those words, ‘The Guy.’ Being counted on by your team is nice. Being out there in any situation when the team needs you is important. I guess that’s what being ‘The Guy’ means to me – being in those spots. Any player wants that.”
• On the days before his trade:
“You spend the week of your wedding thinking about the future, and then there is this other big decision to make. I really just wanted to play out my contract in Pittsburgh and see what was going to happen. I’ve got my friends and family at the wedding, and the guys (Penguins teammates) – and they know it is going on because the story gets out in the media. That’s the media.
“People on TV were talking about details (a reported $60 million offer), and I know they’re only guessing. I wondered what the guys were thinking. It must have been tough for them, too. It was not a great situation. I think the guys were happy for me, but we all really tried to avoid talking about it.”
Moving on, then up
Shero said he made his offer with the intention of Staal signing it and that the Penguins’ long-term plan, even with a salary cap, was to keep Crosby, Malkin and Staal.
Coach Dan Bylsma acknowledged that despite his best efforts, “maybe I didn’t do a good enough job” keeping Staal satisfied on the ice.
When all three centers were healthy – a rarity over Staal’s final two seasons with the Penguins – he was not a presence on the top power-play unit, although Bylsma did start the 2011-12 season with a plan to make Malkin a winger on a second line centered by Staal.
Staal conceded the three-center dynamic with the Penguins was unique. He insisted there was much more made of it outside the dressing room.
He is happy with his new situation.
Carolina coach Kirk Muller considers Staal a “No. 1A center,” though he is slotted on a second line with Jussi Jokinen and Patrick Dwyer filling the winger roles.
Before games played Wednesday, Staal was second to Eric on the Hurricanes with 15 points, and his average ice time (19:47) was actually less than during his last season with the Penguins (20:03).
Staal was averaging 48 additional seconds in power-play time with the Hurricanes.
He lives a “safe distance” – five miles – from Eric. He has found the Raleigh hockey community similar to Pittsburgh: passionate but respectful of privacy.
“I’ve done a few charity events,” Staal said. “That is one thing here that is really like Pittsburgh – a lot of people doing good things.”
Never a slam dunk
That is how Staal prefers to remember his six seasons with the Penguins, too.
He scored 120 goals and recorded 248 points in 431 regular-season games. He was a finalist for the Selke Trophy. He was, as Shero predicted upon making Staal his first draft pick, a “player you win the Cup with” – including memorable performances, such as a goal in Games 4 and 6 of the 2009 Final.
The two Cup Final runs, and the 2009 win, were on his mind when Shero made that contract offer Staal nearly accepted.
Staal knows he could have done it all again by staying with the Penguins.
Or, as his brother pointed out, Jordan Staal could do it all again …
“With family,” Jordan Staal said. “And we’re a really close family. Eric and I are going to be really close for a really long time, and now we are playing together, living in the same city.
“It was never a slam-dunk (decision). Until that last day, I thought I was definitely going to stay.”