Staal, the No. 2 choice in the June NHL draft, has been impressive in his time with the Penguins, scoring four goals in eight games. But once the centre plays in his 10th game, Pittsburgh can no longer send Staal back to his junior team in Peterborough, Ont., without being obligated to honour his NHL contract.
One veteran says there should be no debate whether the 18-year-old Staal should stay with the Penguins beyond Saturday's game against Philadelphia. While Staal's status this season could cost the Penguins financially and move up the centre's eligibility for restricted and unrestricted free agency, Mark Recchi doesn't want to lose his new linemate.
"I have a hard time believing it's even a question," the 38-year-old Recchi said. "I'm not the GM and I don't know about the business side. But I do know he makes our hockey team better."
Staal's three-year, entry-level contract kicks in if he plays 10 games. That would make him eligible for restricted free agency in the summer of 2009 - the same season as fellow Penguins rookie Evgeni Malkin. That could prove problematic with the NHL's salary cap.
Also, the collective bargaining agreement dictates that a player does not accrue a season toward the seven that are required for unrestricted free agency status until he plays in 40 games. If the Penguins assign Staal to Peterborough before early January, he will not be an unrestricted free agent until 2014, instead of 2013.
The Penguins have been tightlipped about the situation.
"We haven't made a decision yet. We're going to play that game (Saturday), have a day off Sunday, and then we'll make a decision," coach Michel Therrien said.
Staal, one of three brothers drafted in the first round in four years, is tied with Malkin for most goals among NHL rookies, and leads the league with three short-handed goals.
Staal fills a number of needs for the Penguins, showing sold play in his own end and killing penalties.
"I've gotten a lot of opportunities. I'm just trying to take advantage of them," said Staal, who scored his first even-strength goal and played 16 1/2 minutes in a 4-2 win over New Jersey on Tuesday.
Staal acknowledged he did not expect to play in the NHL this season. He said he has tried not to dwell on the 10-game rule that could cut short his stay with the Penguins.
"I'm just enjoying myself here," he said. "It's not too often an 18-year-old gets to play in the NHL."