Prior to the start of his first full season as the head coach of the New York Rangers, John Tortorella shared the plans he had for some of the club’s top young players. For most of those players, including Marc Staal, the team’s brightest star on the blueline, the prevailing idea was simple: more offense.
“He’s a guy that’s really intriguing to me because I think he needs to believe that he can bring offense, and I don’t think he believes that yet,” Tortorella said, regarding Staal, following the team’s loss to the Washington Capitals in the first round of the 2009 playoffs . “That is something we are going to push on to him. In the way we want to play, we need to have a guy that’s going to be up the ice and willing to do that.”
Yet for a lengthy portion of the 2009-10 season, it seemed as if the influence of Tortorella was doing more harm for the 23-year-old Staal’s game than good. Through the team’s initial 21 games (including their 7-1 start to the season), Staal had two goals and six assists. Not exactly awe-inspiring numbers. Reporters, bloggers, and message board-visiting fans alike were all questioning the impact that Tortorella was having on the tall, lanky defenseman’s progress.
Oh, how quickly things can change.
Fast forward just a few months, and the sentiment regarding Staal’s third NHL campaign has changed drastically. Surely, the interesting (yet certainly debatable) article written by top hockey blogger James Mirtle proclaiming Staal to be the NHL’s top defensive defenseman played a part in swaying the opinion. Of course, Staal’s three goals in three consecutive games, smack dab in the middle of the Rangers’ ultimately failed late-season push to make the playoffs, helped turn the tide, as well. Perhaps the most impressive piece of information regarding Staal was a simple statistic: even-strength points.
While Staal may have finished the season ranked 59th among all NHL defenseman in total points, the former first round pick just happened to finish the season 10th among NHL defensemen in even-strength points, only behind names like Duncan Keith (1st, 48 ESP), Mike Green (2nd, 40 ESP), Tyler Myers (31 ESP), or others like Dan Boyle, Norris Trophy nominee Drew Doughty, or Chris Pronger , all three of whom finished with just one or two more even-strength points than Staal. Impressive company, no doubt.
There’s no discounting the problems that the Rangers faced on the blueline this season. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist needed to give a superhuman effort nearly every night if the team had any chance of winning most games, in large part due to the lack of team defense. If there was one defenseman on the team that provided less headaches than any other, however, it was surely Staal, who became the de facto No. 1 defenseman on the team in just his third NHL season.
“At the beginning of the year, the coaches wanted me to get more involved in the offense, and it took time to get used to playing that way in a new system,” Staal told Larry Brooks in early April . “I think I was a little confused with what they wanted and what I was bringing to the table. It took me a while to figure that out.”
Although Staal may not be the next Brian Leetch, what he does seem to be blossoming into after three seasons in the league is a very dependable defenseman who can make a smart breakout pass and contribute offensively every once in a while. With the emergence of Michael Del Zotto as a significant offensive presence on the blueline, perhaps it’s a good thing that Staal is taking a step back and staying focused on his strength, his defense.
This summer, though, the focus will be on how much money Glen Sather and the Rangers pony up to pay Staal, a restricted free agent. Some other young defenseman in Staal’s class around the league recently signed their second contracts, and those deals might serve as a good comparison. Chicago’s Brent Seabrook is earning $3.5 million a season for the next three years, while Nashville’s Ryan Suter will be earning the same amount, only for four years. Expect Staal to get somewhere in the $3.5-4.5 million range, with a probable length of three or four years. Anything in that range would be relatively fair, though any discount a cap-strapped club like the Rangers could get would help.
What’s most important is simply holding on to Marc Staal at this point. He may not be a legend in the making, but he’s a damn good young player and the only player in the organization that comes close to being a true shutdown defender. And there ain’t no one ’round these parts other than Staal that has a chance at shutting down an Alexander Ovechkin or a Sidney Crosby.
Marc Staal Grade: A-