The Pittsburgh Penguins can say all they want about how they're still pleased with the development of Jordan Staal, but the fact remains Staal has been one of the major disappointments of the early season.
Of course, he's not alone on the Penguins who, if you can believe it, go into Tuesday night's games with the fourth-worst winning percentage in the NHL. Marc-Andre Fleury has been porous this season, the Penguins defense corps hasn't held up very well and they are getting almost no secondary scoring beyond Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
But given that Staal is just 19 years old, his struggles should be of paramount concern to the Penguins, who moved him to center this season after playing him on left wing all last year. Last season, Staal shocked the hockey world by scoring 29 goals, seven of them shorthanded. This season, he's on pace for just five and in 18 games, is already a team-worst minus-8. He finished last season at plus-16.
So what do the Penguins do with Staal? Do they ride it out with him and hope he pulls out of his funk? But what will it do for the long-term good of Staal and the Penguins if this year continues to be a disaster for both of them?
Or do the Penguins make the bold move of sending Staal back to major junior hockey this season? Because Staal is still an underage player, he cannot be sent down to the minors, so it's either the NHL or junior hockey for him. It would be a severe comedown to be sure, but doing so would give Staal the opportunity to dominate at a level with his peers, represent Canada at the World Junior Championship and possibly play for a Memorial Cup this year.
The Peterborough Petes, who own Staal's junior rights, are basically a .500 team this season, but he would improve them dramatically if he were to come back, or the Petes could deal him to a serious Cup contender at the trade deadline.
It's highly unlikely any of this will happen. In fact, it's almost impossible. But it's something for the Penguins to ponder as they watch their promising season continue to go south.
FYI, along with Staal, players with junior eligibility still playing in the NHL this season are Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in Chicago, Sam Gagner in Edmonton, James Sheppard in Minnesota, Peter Mueller in Phoenix, David Perron in St. Louis, Jiri Tlusty in Toronto and Milan Lucic in Boston.