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Jordan Staal Trade Reaction; What Does Ray Shero Have Planned For the Penguins?

I want to start this piece off by giving my view on former Pittsburgh Penguins center Jordan Staal, so we’re all on the same page when considering the 23-year-old’s value. Jordan Staal trade

From the first time he stepped onto National Hockey League ice as a Penguin in 2006, I was never a huge Jordan Staal fan. On the ice, I saw what everybody else did: a giant centerman who played a mean defensive game, killed penalties and had that “iron man” air about him. Unlike everybody else, though, I didn’t truly see the offensive potential.

Staal’s 29-goal rookie campaign had many believing the then-18-year-old had massive goal scoring potential. I didn’t. He was too slow and awkward a skater without an overly heavy shot to consistently pot more than 30 goals. The fact that seven of Staal’s 29 goals came while shorthanded had me confident in my assessment of Staal’s future with the Penguins: a great third line center (behind the two best in the world) with 25-goal ability and perennial Selke Trophy candidacy as the league’s best defensive forward.

Staal posted 12 goals and 28 points the next season and followed that with back-to-back 49-point campaigns without scoring 23 goals. He played in 327 of the first 328 games of his career.

During the 2010-11 season, at age 22, Staal posted 11 goals and 30 points in 42 games after returning from a foot injury halfway through the season. Carrying the offensive load for the Penguins with superstar centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin sidelined, this was the first time Staal was really given top line minutes and responded with what was a career high point pace.

Last year, Staal really began flashing his offensive potential. He potted 25 goals and 25 assists in just 62 games and was the team’s best player during the postseason. His stats pro-rated to a full season (33/33/66) put him on pace for the first 30-goal year of his career.

Now, I view Jordan Staal a bit differently than I did as recently as 8 months ago. He’s still a solid defensive center with the potential to become the best defensive center in the game, but his scoring touch is obvious. With top line and power play minutes, I have no doubt he’ll score 30 goals consistently.

Now for the trade. Jordan Staal trade

General Manager Ray Shero and the Penguins sent Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for center Brandon Sutter, the eighth overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft and defensive prospect Brian Dumoulin during the first round of this weekend’s draft.

With Minnesota on the clock with the seventh pick of the draft, I had this to say (Tweet):

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Once Carolina’s eighth overall pick came around, once the big screen at CONSOL Energy Center flashed “TRADE ALERT” and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman took the podium, my jaw dropped. Everybody’s jaw dropped. He was gone.

The adrenaline pumping through my body didn’t allow me to hear anything but Bettman’s “… and the fans here will be particularly interested…” and then “… Jordan Staal to Carolina for the eighth overall selection in the 2012 Draft, Brandon Sutter, and…”

Eyes wide, mouth open and brother in arms, to say I was in shock would be an understatement.

My brain wanted it to happen. Third-ranked prospect and scoring forward Mikhail Grigorenko was, in fact, still on the board. The Penguins were going to draft a future star, reel in a replacement shutdown center and add another top defensive prospect in exchange for a player of dissipating value who wasn’t going to re-sign after this season.

But my heart didn’t. Jordan Staal trade

And the Penguins didn’t. Rather than taking the free falling Grigorenko or Swedish sensation Filip Forsberg, the Penguins opted for yet another defenseman, selecting Derrick Pouliot from the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. After taking (Pouliot’s defensive partner at Portland) Joe Morrow and Scott Harrington in the first two rounds of last year’s draft, the Penguins passed on two potential star forwards for a player comparable to two or three already in the system.

In the few seconds between the trade announcement and the Penguins’ selection, I almost came to terms with the fact that Jordan Staal was gone – something I won’t be able to really do until October at best. As I mentioned, the Penguins were getting a great return on an asset who clearly had aspirations above and beyond what was available in Pittsburgh.

I wasn’t happy – trading an integral piece of a Stanley Cup winning team, especially of Staal’s caliber, will rarely result in a fan being happy – but I was happy with the return. That is, until the team selected Pouliot rather than Grigorenko.

At that point, I was furious for obvious reasons. Morrow, Harrington, Simon Despres, Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo are all probably ready to play in the NHL, while the team still had Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek, Paul Martin, Deryk Engelland, Ben Lovejoy and were negotiating with Matt Niskanen. That’s 12 NHL-ready blueliners before the addition of Pouliot (and newly acquired Dumoulin). I didn’t understand.

I won’t even talk about how I felt when the Penguins selected defenseman Olli Maatta with the 22nd pick of the draft. You can probably guess my reaction at this point.

About half an hour after the Penguins took Maatta, though, it hit me. Since I attended the draft personally and didn’t get the insight of the NBC Sports analysts it hit me later than most, but it certainly hit me:

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That was the plan all along. I’m embarrassed to say I missed it until the shipping of Zbynek Michalek (and his $4 million cap hit) back to Phoenix, but the plan all along – even with the Staal trade – was to clear cap space.

With that cap space, Shero and the Penguins will pursue soon-to-be 28-year-old winger Zach Parise.

By far the best forward on the market, Parise had a down year by his standards this season, posting 31 goals and 69 points in 81 games with the New Jersey Devils before recording 15 more in 24 playoff games.

In my humble opinion, Parise is the perfect winger for Crosby. Gritty, aggressive, relentless and talented are some of the first words that come to mind when talking about Parise.

If Crosby isn’t able to get back to his grinding ways of the years prior to his head and neck injuries, Parise will be more than suitable to do most of the dirty work on the line, allowing Crosby to keep his head a bit safer and perhaps even open up some space for the former 120-point centerman.

Essentially what Ray Shero is doing here is dismantling a dynasty as necessary – since Staal in all likelihood wasn’t going to re-sign – and from it building an even better one, featuring a potential 100-point winger rather than a solid two-way center.

By the way, Shero maintained a shut down center for Pittsburgh’s third line and penalty kill when he got Sutter.

Think about that and let it sink in for a moment. Somehow, Shero has devised a plan the could allow the Penguins to employ three 50-goal scorers in Crosby, Parise and Malkin, plus 40-goal man James Neal, all while maintaining a scary young defensive corps featuring four first round picks, a second round pick and Letang, plus have one of the top five goaltenders in the National Hockey League to wrap it all up.

If need be, the Penguins could eventually move Letang and his $3.5 million cap hit in a fashion similar to Staal.

That’s a hell of a plan, Dr. von Doom- er, Mr. Shero.

The Penguins currently have 18 players under contract with nearly $15 million in cap space. The team must (re-)sign or eventually promote at least one forward and a defenseman, but I’m sure much more than that will occur.

That means it isn’t entirely necessary to move Paul Martin and his $5 million cap hit this year, but it would probably be in the team’s best interest to do so, given Martin’s play in Pittsburgh and the team’s depth at defense.

Rumor has it the Penguins will sign Crosby to a decade-long contract extension in the coming weeks/days with a cap hit only slightly (less than $1 million) higher than his current $8.7 million number.

Clearly, all signs point to the Penguins pressing for Parise’s services come July 1.

Of course, there’s always Anaheim Ducks winger Bobby Ryan available via trade as a viable backup plan. But more than that, many outlets are reporting heavy interest from the Penguins in free agent defenseman Ryan Suter in addition to Parise. Now that would be something.

In Shero We Trust.

Follow Troy Pfaff on Twitter @TroyPfaff for more NHL and Pittsburgh Penguins content