PITTSBURGH (AP) -Pittsburgh Penguins coach Michel Therrien hates hearing the question that was asked in numerous NHL cities this season: What's wrong with Jordan Staal?
Staal's scoring numbers are down considerably from a season ago, when, as an 18-year-old who wasn't supposed to play in the NHL so early in his career, he had 29 goals and 42 points - including a league rookie-record seven short-handed goals.
This season? The 6-foot-4 Staal is one of the league's most adept penalty killers, with an extended reach that any boxer would prize, yet he doesn't have a single short-handed goal. His 12 regular season goals weren't half as many as he had a season ago.
There have been numerous reasons tossed about for Staal's falloff, including the traditional sophomore slump theory and the idea that the Penguins have so many scorers, it's not necessary for them to always put Staal in the middle between two skilled offensive players.
To Therrien, it's easy to see why Staal isn't the player he was while being a finalist for the NHL rookie of the year award last season.
He's better.
``You look at his numbers offensively, this year compared to last year, they're not the same but we believe he's a much better player this year than he was last year,'' Therrien said. ``And he's going to be better (at age 20) next year. You can't always judge a player with numbers.''
Especially not when a player is being used mostly to kill penalties and to center a third line. That line, with rookie right wing Tyler Kennedy and opponent-agitating left wing Jarkko Ruutu, is expected to create offense with its defense, force turnovers and be very difficult to score against.
It's a role Staal might not have on a team that didn't possess scorers such as Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Marian Hossa and Petr Sykora, but it is one he willingly accepts.
``I know I'm still getting better,'' he said. ``I'm still working on my game. What's important is for the team to win.''
Not that he doesn't like scoring - c'mon, he's 19, and he hears about it via text messages from brothers Eric Staal of Carolina and Marc Staal of the Rangers when he doesn't.
After ending a 19-game stretch in which he scored only once by getting two goals and an assist Jan. 10 at Tampa Bay, he said, almost with a sigh, ``That was a long time coming.''
What hasn't taken Staal long is developing his defensive game to a level that looks to make him one of the league's best defensive forwards for a long time. His wingspan allows him to swat away or deflect passes, and he was so disruptive defensively last season in short-handed situations that opposing teams on the power play regularly try to steer to the puck to his opposite side.
Staal had a goal during the Penguins' first-round sweep of Ottawa and will be one of their most important players when they begin their Eastern Conference semifinal series later this week.
The Penguins, who haven't played since last Wednesday, practiced again Tuesday without knowing whether they would play the Washington Capitals or New York Rangers in the second round.
``Either way, whoever we play, it's going to be a battle. We know that,'' forward Ryan Malone said. ``It doesn't matter who we play.''
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