When it was announced that Marc Staal was out of commission to begin the 2011-2012 season due to the lingering effects of a concussion caused by a hit from his brother Eric in February of 2011, it sparked somewhat of a panic among Ranger fans. Staal and partner Dan Girardi comprised perhaps one of the strongest shutdown defensive pairings in the NHL, and the future looked uncertain without #18 at the blueline.
The Emergence of Ryan McDonagh
Staal’s injury opened the door for the emergence of Ryan McDonagh, paired with Girardi, as one of the strongest young d-men in the league; perhaps this coming-out drew attention away from the conspicuous absence of the Rangers’ top blueliner. And when Staal finally returned to action in January of this year (his first game back being the Winter Classic), he appeared in some ways a shell of his former self. One of his best attributes had always been his skating, among the best on the team; now, however, he seemed to be lacking the customary spring in his step, and opposing players often seemed able to get the jump on him in situations in which they never had before. This rust on his game, together with the nature of his injury, caused a whole new species of alarm in many fans: had Staal lost it? Was it even rust, or was he just not the same player he had been prior to the concussion? Some even called for him to be traded – somewhat astounding considering the consistence of his play throughout his career leading up to the injury and the fact that many had considered him a franchise defenseman.
And then came the playoffs. As Girardi and McDonagh, so consistently effective in Staal’s absence, finally began to show the inevitable effects of logging extreme minutes game after game; as Michael Del Zotto’s regular season magic gave way to a playoff breakdown, Staal stepped back into the spotlight and reminded everyone of why we were so disheartened when he went down with the injury in the first place. The tremendous stride and long reach, the high hockey IQ and strong instincts, the willingness to both take the body and give it up: all reemerged, and throughout the playoffs he was arguably, once again, the team’s best defenseman.
Despite this, there are still those who feel that Staal is not the same player he once was. The rise of McDonagh has probably helped to further this sentiment, and caused some people to view Staal as somewhat less indispensable than once thought. With the NHL lockout ongoing it’s difficult to prove either side’s case at present, but watch a replay of just about any game from the Rangers’ 2012 playoff run and the question of whether Marc Staal is still Marc Staal should be relatively easy to answer. Now let’s just hope that the lockout is resolved soon and he gets a chance to prove it once and for all.