Marc Staal was traded to Detroit over the weekend in a shocking deal that caught everyone off guard. The Rangers, saddled with the final year of his $5.7 million contract, cleared the entire cap hit, costing them just a 2nd round pick in 2021 to do so. The move was done to help the Rangers set themselves up for next season and beyond as playoff contenders. Marc Staal’s legacy with the Rangers is a complicated one, filled with nuance.
Staal played 892 regular season games with the Rangers, and almost all of them were as a top-four defenseman. He was never going to be a top scoring defenseman, packing at 7-22-29 in the 2010-2011 season. He finished his Rangers career with a line of 43-145-188, with 7-13-20 in 107 playoff games.
A Shutdown Defenseman
Staal’s tenure in New York began in 2005, when the Rangers traded up to get him in the first draft after the lockout. Just two seasons later, Staal made his NY Rangers debut as a 20 year old, something relatively uncommon. He was paired with Michal Roszival, and along with Dan Girardi, marked the beginning of the youth movement that led to sustained success until the rebuild.
Despite his lack of skill with the puck, Staal really shined as a shutdown defenseman. Frequently lined up against Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, we all have memories of Staal knocking both of them off their skates as they skated over the middle. When he was at his best, Staal was leading with his stick for a pokecheck while lining himself up for a big hit. Never dirty, Staal measured his opponents out and delivered a shoulder to the chest.
Before the game evolved, Staal was a premier shutdown defenseman in the league. He was out there against the best, and he gave his best for the Rangers. He was never offensively gifted, but it didn’t matter for a while.
Injuries and Evolving NHL
Staal’s downfall began after that gruesome eye injury he suffered. It’s been assumed Staal is partially blind in his eye after that, and it truly impacted his ability to see an outlet pass. Even though puck handling and passing was never a strong suit, he wasn’t a huge liability there until after this.
He was then concussed by his brother Eric in 2011. This was the true injury that changed Staal’s career trajectory. He was never the same after that. Despite the injury concern and his very visible declining play, the Rangers signed him to his current deal in 2015, one that eventually led to the criticism seen in recent years.
*-Update. Concussion first, then eye injury. Got that backwards. Sorry.
This is around the time when the NHL started changing the way it looked at the game. The phase out of one-dimensional players was slow to start, but really accelerated over the last 2-3 years. Staal’s declining play due to injury was compounded by the increased focus on puck moving defensemen. The puck became a grenade on Staal’s stick.
Beyond that, the NHL got faster. Staal was beat regularly wide and was often out of position in the defensive zone. Staal was a perfect 90’s and early 2000’s defenseman playing in the 2010’s era of hockey. He was misplaced.
As mentioned, Marc Staal’s legacy is complicated. Recency bias shows him as one of the worst defensemen on the team. But that isn’t fair to Staal. He was also one of three core pieces that helped drag the Rangers out of ineptitude into the longest sustained period of success of this generation. There is no denying that he was an integral part of the Rangers’ success through 2015.
Staal was also an integral part in the Rangers’ sharp decline starting in 2016. The Rangers are in the next era of Blueshirts hockey, and one that can’t truly begin until the old guard has left. In time, Staal will be remembered as a true warrior, a consummate professional, and one of the nicest guys and leaders in the locker room.
Staal won’t have any further accolades or awards with the Rangers. His legacy with the team will be a mixed bag of success and failure. There is also a lot of “what if” with Staal’s career. What if he never had that concussion or eye injury? What kind of conversations would we be having right now?
In the end, Staal became a whipping boy. It’s impossible to argue that his last 2-3 years on Broadway were horrendous. It’s also impossible to argue that he wasn’t an effective, shutdown defenseman before that final contract. Marc Staal’s legacy with the Rangers is, and forever will be, complicated. But he deserves a big thank you for his time in New York. He truly gave it all, plus more, for the Rangers.