While everyone in the media who’ve analysed the Rangers point to Henrik Lundqvist in net and Marian Gaborik, Rick Nash and Brad Richards up front as the critical components for a successful season, people have somewhat forgotten about the defense. Even when people have talked Rangers defense it’s invariably been about the now resolved Michael Del Zotto contract situation. Of course, rightly so, all the aforementioned names will be critical to the Rangers season, but people need to remember just how good a certain Marc Staal was not so long ago.
People assume Marian Gaborik will benefit from the lockout and of course he has and will. Healthy, refreshed and with more offensive help, Gaborik should be in line for a strong season again. But perhaps no Ranger will have benefited from the extra time off more than Marc Staal. Staal is a workhorse who didn’t look himself when he returned from his long layoff last year. With the extra rest Staal could get back to being a dominant defensive presence for the Rangers.
Recall how good Henrik Lundqvist was last year. He didn’t have the luxury of the ‘old’ Marc Staal. Now recall how good that ‘old’ Staal was the year prior. Add the potential of the two together and you’ve the makings of a serious upgrade defensively. The Rangers need to be lucky with injuries on the blueline (as do all teams in an abbreviated season), but with the upgrades on offense and with a strong top four on the blueline, there is no reason this team can’t have a hugely successful season.
Can the Rangers keep pace offensively with the Penguins? They might not have to. No team in the league boasts the top end, elite skill the Penguins can; but there’s not a chance in hockey h-e-double-hockey-sticks that the Penguins can match the Rangers for blueline and goaltending talent and depth. Marc Staal can be a significant x-factor should the Rangers need to get past the Penguins for the division race and/or if they meet in the playoffs. Staal has had success in years past against Crosby in terms of matchups, and he’s routinely been successful when used in assignments against the league’s best individuals.
As a bonus, Staal should also be able to improve his game offensively, but it’s the Rangers ability to take on the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos, and Ilya Kovalchuk head on that bodes well, as a return to form of Staal gives the team so much more defensively. Dan Girardi shouldn’t need to play insane minutes this year (nor can he given the schedule). Ryan McDonagh also can be used more sparingly. If all three of the Rangers top defensive options can be rotated in a more user-friendly manner, then the results could be promising.
Of course, this assumes Staal can get back to his All Star self. Concussions are funny things to predict, and in the grand scheme of things Staal has not played much hockey in the past two years. But his natural ability, his extra rest and the players around him suggest Staal is in a great situation entering this season, he could be the Rangers best kept ‘secret’. By the way, did you know Marc Staal has brothers?