Monday, April 02, 2007

The Most Unique Rookie

There are several rookies of note in the NHL this season, lead by likely rookie of the year Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the one with the most unique skill set is Jordan Staal. Staal was the second pick in the 2006 entry draft and has been the most successful of the two players from that draft class who jumped to the NHL (Phil Kessel of Boston is the other player). Staal is not likely to receive a Calder nomination (they should go to Malkin, Paul Stastny of Colorado and Anze Kopitar of Los Angeles) but has accomplished something that no other 18 year old rookie forward has accomplished. He has been a more successful penalty killer than any 18 year old rookie forward ever. That is quite an achievement. Very few rookies are given significant time on the penalty kill - and that includes those who eventually become regulars on the penalty kill later in their careers. Those rookies that do have significant penalty kill time are usually older rookies who have had some time to learn their craft in the AHL or Europe and not an 18 year old fresh out of junior hockey. In fact, Staal leads the NHL with seven shorthanded goals this year.

Staal currently has 29 goals and 41 points. These are very good numbers for a rookie - though not for a rookie of the year. Most impressive is his poise in defensive and penalty kill situations. I could imagine Staal eventually becoming the best player in this year's rookie class. He is the youngest player in the NHL right now and playing very well. He is showing a unique skill set (short handed talent at age 18!). It will be fun to watch him develop

A similar player, though a defenseman, is Marc-Edouard Vlasic of the Sharks. No one ever hears anything about him but he has been a great rookie for the Sharks. He just turned 20 years old on Friday but is second to Scott Hannan in ice time and short handed ice time, has 3 goals, 26 points and is a +15 (second best on Sharks) in 78 games.
Staal also has an unbelievable shot%, which isn't likely to continue in the future. It's not a shocker if he dips to 20- goals next year, given how SH% dont tend to stay so high.

Still, it's great to see him burying all of these short-handed goals.

I think it often happens that very young players who have high shooting percentages have them because they have not learned to shoot often enough. With some experience, I think Staal will take more shots, have a lower shooting percentage but get more goals.

As an aside, I recognize that calling somebody "most unique" would make an English teacher upset. Every player in NHL history is unique. Staal is more different from any other than any I have seen in a long time. I haven't the faintest idea who is a good player to compare Jordan Staal to.
I caught the Penguins in Boston last week. He looks his age but doesn't play like it. Sounds like he's going to be a solid NHLer for a long time if he's already so defensively capable, to go along with his offensive abilities. Paul Stastny has also showed this year what a complete player he is, though he's a bit older .
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Staal has a sniper's mentality shorthanded...but his even strength game is improving day by day. He will score 30 next year no doubt about it. His shot % will likely drop but his playing time will increase.
For anyone who thinks Staal is a sure thing to score 30 next season let me just mention the names Marek Svatos and Petr Prucha. Both of them have taken a step back this season and it wouldn't surprise me if Staal took a step back next year too. At least offensviely. In fact, the top 5 goal producing rookies last season (Ovechkin, Crosby, Svatos, Prucha and Boyes) have all scored fewer goals this seson (though Crosby has boosted his point total).
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