Jordan Staal uses free agency to his advantage

It’s not quite like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all getting together for a so-called “summit” to decide that they, all unrestricted free agents in the same year, wanted to play together in Miami.

But the concept is somewhat similar when Jordan Staal rejected a 10-year contract offer from the Pittsburgh Penguins last week because, in part, it meant the chance that he would one day play alongside his oldest brother Eric, the Carolina Hurricanes’ captain, would, in his words, “dwindle a lot.”

Jordan Staal’s decision also does not differ so much from what Carmelo Anthony did in 2010-11 except, perhaps, in tact and tactics. Anthony had a singular and immediate destination in mind — the New York Knicks — and made it happen.

It’s happened in hockey before. Scott Niedermayer left the New Jersey Devils, where he had won the Stanley Cup three times to play with his brother Rob in Anaheim. (They won the Cup together there in 2007.)

But what is somewhat amazing is that a player as young as Jordan Staal — he’s only 23 — could use free agency to his advantage in helping to determine where he wanted to play. In fairness to Staal, he said in a conference call on Saturday with reporters that he was overwhelmed by the Penguins’ contract offer and wanted to play out the 2012-13 season in Pittsburgh before deciding upon his future.

Alas, general managers of elite teams like Ray Shero and the Penguins cannot risk losing such an important player for nothing. When Staal turned down his proposal, Shero got an excellent return in checking center Brandon Sutter, also 23 and already a 20-goal scorer in his career, along with a defense prospect and the NHL’s No. 8 overall pick, which the Penguins used on Friday.

Staal conceded that concerns of his career development — how much ice time he would receive going forward and what his role would be — also were involved in his rejection of the Penguins’ offer. He wants the opportunity to play a first- or second-line center role, which he was able to do last season as Sidney Crosby missed so many games because of what was thought to be post-concussion syndrome and a soft-tissue injury to his neck, instead of Staal’s usual role as perhaps the game’s preeminent checking line center. But with Crosby, a past winner of the Hart Trophy (league MVP) and Evgeni Malkin, who claimed the Hart on Wednesday for last season, on the depth chart ahead of him, Staal was not likely to get that chance.

“I did get offered a deal with Pittsburgh,” Staal said. “When I heard about it, I wasn’t really comfortable with it yet and I really just kind of wanted to wait it out and play next year and see how things went. Obviously, not playing with Sid together in the same lineup for so long, I didn’t know how it was going to end up, but I kind of wanted to test the waters and see how it was.”

He conceded that the choice put Shero in a bad position but also that he didn’t want to inhibit the opportunity to play with Eric someday.

“It was just getting that 10-year offer, it was kind in the back of my mind, knowing that if I did sign that deal, there’s a good chance I would never, ever play besides Eric,” Jordan said. “That was something that was also in the back of my mind as well.”

And isn’t that the essence of free agency — for a player to have a say and some self-determination in where he chooses to play, even if Staal said the move came “sooner than I would like?”

Before the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement that went into effect for the 2005-06 season (and which expires in September), NHL players had to have 10 years of service in the league or turn 31 before they became unrestricted free agents.

Staal just completed his sixth season. After next season, he could have bolted for Carolina or anywhere else he desired before hitting the age of 25. NHL owners and general managers knew what they were getting into when they signed the last CBA, but losing such a talented and vital player as Staal at so young an age ranked among the provisions of the document that they feared the most.

Even Anthony was 26 just and three months removed from 27 when his saga played out with the Nuggets last year. Dwight Howard, taking a somewhat similar stance with the Orlando Magic, is 26.

So in hockey, as in other sports, self-determination plays a role and money is not always central. While James, Wade and Bosh might have held a summit, the Staals had family occasions to flesh out their own ideas about their futures. Playing together, evidently, mattered. The family learned the news during Jordan’s wedding reception on Friday.
“We had talked about it a little bit,” Jordan said. “With all my brothers, my parents. It’s definitely something we all would really like to do. It’s not too often just to have brothers in the NHL but to play alongside one is a pretty special thing. If I did sign that 10-year extension, the opportunity to play with Eric would dwindle a lot. It’s a little bit of why I didn’t do that.

“It’s an exciting time for myself and Eric and our family and when Eric found out, I’m pretty sure he was pretty excited about it and the whole family was. It’s going to be a very neat time for me.”

When Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford met with reporters on Friday to discuss the trade, he was asked if he would attempt to acquire another Staal brother, the New York Rangers’ All-Star defenseman Marc, 25. Rutherford reportedly stood stone-faced at first, refusing to answer for fear of breaking the NHL’s tampering rules. (A fourth Staal brother, Jared, 22, is working his way up in the American Hockey League.)

Whether intentional or not, Rutherford appears to have cornered the market on the Staals. If Marc wants to join Eric and Jordan in Carolina when he becomes unrestricted in three years and if the Hurricanes are welcoming, there’s not much anyone can do to stop it.