= A couple of weeks ago when speaking to C JORDAN STAAL about his offseason surgery for a right foot that had become infected I remember him not sounding at all comfortable discussing the injury. I mentioned this to GM RAY SHERO, who joked that Staal doesn’t like to talk period. Good point, I thought. Maybe a huge leap on my part here, but I can’t help thinking about my original assessment – that Staal wasn’t comfortable talking about his right foot because he lacked faith that all would be well when he hoped, which was the midpoint of training camp.
Today at the Penguins’ annual charity golf outing I posed this question to HC DAN BYLSMA: How can you trust anything about Staal’s situation knowing he’s already needed two surgeries to deal with infection for a foot that was surgically repaired in May?
“As far as I know, medically, there’s no looking back once the infection is gone,” he said. “There’s nothing about this that will be long term.”
I don’t doubt Bylsma believes that, but I’m skeptical. Last season I witnessed C MAX TALBOT struggle to two goals after missing all of camp and most of the first two months because he was recovering from offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum. Scar tissue near the repaired labrum was a problem, but the big issue was his strength.
“It was tough to not have an offseason because that’s where you build your strength,” he said. “It was hard enough to get my shoulder OK, but I never got my legs. I never had that jump, and I’m a player that needs to be in top shape because I need my jump. Without it I can’t do what I do.
“I think Jordan is different because of his size. He’s so big and he’s so dominant, and he’ll be OK. I think.”
All anybody can do right now is think when it comes to Staal. Reality is nobody will know where he’s at until he steps back onto the ice. Still, he’s only been able to do that once this summer, and he’ll have missed out on three full months of training opportunity when he does start practicing.
The Penguins shouldn’t need him in the regular season, but Talbot wasn’t even himself by the playoffs. A worst-case example? Maybe. One worth noting, though.
Without Staal being Staal in the playoffs the Penguins aren’t a threat. With him they hold the Game 4 lead against Montreal, end that series in five games and get past the Flyers and back to the Final. Without him they blew that Game 4 and, honestly, that was the turning point from which they never recovered.
I was criticized for saying this at the time, but I genuinely believed they would have been off losing one of their other star centers for those two games Staal missed. Still do. What he brings nobody on the team can.
= Several teammates told me Staal is very down about this latest setback. He takes a backseat to no Penguin – even C SIDNEY CROSBY – in the mental toughness department. However, I recall Crosby saying the five-plus weeks he missed three years ago because of a high right ankle sprain ranked as toughest experience of his career. Also, I’m convinced part of what contributed to C EVGENI MALKIN’S down last season was his inability to reconcile how a bum right shoulder limited what he could do on the ice, especially how he felt off it. Malkin never used that as an excuse, but the miserable two month stretch from mid-November to mid-January coincided with the days he was least confident about the shoulder.
Staal is remarkably tough-minded. He played his best game of the 2008 Stanley Cup Final after attending his grandfather’s funeral. Having met his father I can say the Staal boys were raised not to make excuses. Still, the Penguins’ Staal is 22 and dealing with an injury for the first time – and he’s gone under the knife three times since May. That is a lot for anybody to deal with. Too much? I do wonder.
= Speaking of Malkin; he looked totally refreshed when we briefly chatted today at the golf outing. A little bulkier, too – in a good way. I asked him about being a tour guide for Bylsma when the coach visited Malkin in Moscow.
“I did the talking,” Malkin said, laughing. “I ordered the food.”
That sense of humor is a good sign, kids.
= C MARK LETESTU, who I say has a real chance to make this team (especially now), on the opportunity in front of him: “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t on my mind. My ability to adjust on the fly, absorb the system and play a strong positional game – (coaches) know that’s my foundation, and they’ll be looking for it to see that it’s there. I need to bring more of what’s outside my box to make this team.”
= G MARC-ANDRE FLEURY visited Paris for the first time during a summer vacation. He lamented that everybody there spoke English, and that the French spoken in France is different sounding from the French spoken in his native Quebec. “It was me, you know, speaking English to them speaking English – and we all speak French, but it all sounds different,” he said, gritting his teeth in mock frustration.
To anybody who wonders if he has put a disappointing last season behind him. Uh, yeah.