He's back, better than ever and he's got a knack for making things better. Yes, these are the same words that former WWE personality Eric Bischoff walked out to each night he made an appearance on Monday Night Raw, but the lyrics are apropos considering Marc Staal's return to top form.
This is about the fourth time the Thunder Bay, Ontario, native has regained his status as one of the game's quietest elite defenders, because injuries have not been kind to him. If not for bad luck, there's a chance that Staal would have more recognition, but there is a chance that he may be able to keep it going this time.
Right now the Rangers are in the midst of their best hockey of the season and the team's defense is once again a major strength. It is a convenient coincidence, but it gives credence to the notion that the Rangers are a better team when Staal is on top of his game. With that in mind, what does a healthy Staal mean to the team going forward?
With a healthy No. 18, Alain Vigneault can continue to distribute the workload between the pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, the pairing of the aforementioned Staal and Anton Stralman and the remaining pair of Kevin Klein and John Moore will pick up the rest.
There have already been some examples of this. Here is a chart with each defender's average TOI total thus far.
|NYR Average T.O.I. By Defender|
|Defender||T.O.I. Per Game|
Every NHL team would kill to have a talent blueliner like Staal on its second pairing because that is a great luxury.
Luxury is the perfect word since Staal is good enough to be a No. 1 or No. 2 defender when healthy. The Hockey News' Forecaster profiled the 6'4", 207-pound Staal, and here is how his game was analyzed.
"Excels in one-on-one battles. Has a very active stick and long reach, which make him very effective in the shutdown role. Skates well and is extremely cerebral. Can produce offensively."
The report ended with a description of his career potential and it stated: "Excellent shutdown defenseman with some upside."
This is a perfect description of his game, and it reinforces what he means to the Rangers.
Over the last few weeks it has been very entertaining to watch Staal play and it's clear he is back. In addition to his four points over the last four games and his increased physical play, Staal's skating looks more fluid.
Upon returning from an eye injury, Staal had problems with angles and his blindside, which was evident during the Rangers' brief playoff run last season.
He isn't having those problems any more, which is great to see. It is a bunch of little things but when added together it's evident how vital Staal is to the team. He can generate offense, he is a talented shutdown defender and just an overall great player.
While it may be too late to mount a run for the Norris Trophy, don't count No. 18 out next year. If he remains healthy, he should be a top contender based on his talent. It's a big if but when you take into account his cache of skills and luck, anything is possible with Staal.