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Injuries to key defensemen give Marc Staal a chance to save his Rangers legacy

John Dundon

M Staal young 2

Photo courtesy of Bridget Samuels/Flickr

Six days ago we were preparing the narrative in support of the Rangers’ chances at making a Stanley cup run: they were injury free. It was a potential advantage, especially with just about all of the playoff teams in the Eastern Conference playoff mix dealing with key injuries.

Pittsburgh recently learned Marc-Andre Fleury was going to be sidelined with a concussion. Fleury joins Evgeni Malkin and Olli Maatta as question marks for the high flying Pens with just one game remaining in their regular season. The Islanders’ Travis Hamonic is out with a lower body injury, and could miss the start of the playoffs and beyond. Their goaltending situation is an injury riddled mess, although Thomas Greiss nearly blanked the Rangers last night. The Lightning lost their leading goal scorer and captain Steven Stamkos to a freakish blood clot issue. The Rangers? Just bumps, bruises and fatigue.

Then, Ryan McDonagh got hit with a hard shot on a soft spot of his right-hand glove in the game against the Blue Jackets. Their advantage was gone.

So one question begs asking. Can the Rangers win the Stanley Cup without McDonagh? With questions already surrounding the legitimacy of this group of Rangers as true cup contenders, now they’re without their number one defenseman to start the playoffs. Certainly not ideal.

Couple this now with the unknown status of Dan Girardi, and you’ve got a potential disaster on your hands.  Girardi’s status is up in the air with fans praying for no concussion. Girardi comes with his faults, but he is the Rangers franchise leader in playoff games played. The fact that he’s been a part of this very successful Rangers core is something of significance no matter how you slice it.

How on god’s green earth are we to believe that the Rangers can win in spite of the loss of their number one defenseman and (searching for a narrative about Dan Girardi) well, Dan Girardi? Heck they haven’t gotten the job done with Mac and G.

There are a couple of parts of the team that will need to be really good for the Blueshirts to finally reach hockey’s Holy Grail. Henrik Lundqvist needs to be an advantage in every potential goaltending matchup—and he IS. Rick Nash will absolutely have to get off his playoff goal drought. A Nash goal-splosion will be necessary for the Rangers to come out of the pack in the East. We all know he has played well and not gotten the bounces, but time is running out for Nash to make a difference as a Ranger. Brady Skjei and/or Dylan McIlrath will need to step up and fill any holes left in the Rangers defense as a result of the injuries—they will need to do so seamlessly. All of these scenarios are plausible, the biggest question these Rangers will need to answer will be this: who is going to be Ryan McDonagh?

The simple answer to this question is that no one will replicate what McDonagh brings to the team. My answer: Marc Staal will need to return to his once ascendant form for the Rangers to compete in these playoffs.

Staal has had an up and down season thus far. He hasn’t played very well, but hasn’t been the catastrophic levels of bad fans have accused him of being. More of the frustration probably roots from his salary and contract. A former NYR first round pick, Staal was well on his way to having a long and prosperous career as a great top four defenseman. Who knows, had he stayed on his developmental path he could have been first-pair worthy, as he was earlier in his Rangers career.

Injuries got in the way when Staal was starting to become a dominant defensive force. His long reach and no-fear game allowed him to quickly become a staple on the Rangers blue line when the current core was just a glimmer in Glen Sather’s eye. Staal’s rookie season saw the 21-year old play in 80 regular season games, averaging 18:11 TOI with a CF% of 57.1. His sophomore season was more of the same. He played in all 82 games and saw his average time on ice climb to 21:08. His ice time was as high as 25:44 per night before his 25th birthday.

In 2011, Marc was checked by his brother and now teammate Eric Staal, and later revealed that he was dealing with concussion like symptoms. His first game of the following season didn’t take place until January as he battled the head injury, he struggled to return to his usual form. The 2012-2013 campaign was once again halted by injury, after he was hit in the eye by a slap shot that sent him flailing to the ice in pain.

Head injuries are scary. They are even more scary when the nature of the injury becomes exaggerated and repeated. Having played nearly half of a season with a concussion in 2011, then being forced to miss half of the following season with concussion like symptoms from a hit suffered nearly nine months prior—that’s the type of injury that ends careers. The head injury issue grew when Staal was hit in the eye with a shot at full speed, suffering structural damage to his orbital bone to his and retina.

The fact that Staal is still able to play every night after going through such significant head trauma is something in itself. Had his development not been derailed by injuries, the Rangers could have Ryan McDonagh’s replacement for the time being already in the lineup.

The Rangers cannot win if they don’t find one of the six defensemen on the roster capable of eating the defensive zone minutes and handling top forwards like McDonagh has all season. If Marc Staal can unearth some of the potential we saw pre-2012, they’ll have found that replacement. I think he can, and in doing so, Staal will be re-writing the current narrative. Right now, Staal is a player in decline and only getting worse with a really bad and really expensive contract.

For Staal to be remembered as something other than a player who had injuries make his potential great career, just “good,” he’ll have to step up and be the guy for the Blueshirts while their captain is nursing a broken hand.

If he steps up, he can be the Rangers coveted savior.

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Posted on April 8, 2016, in In the Crease and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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