The term “number one defenseman” is really similar to “ace pitcher” in baseball. Yeah, technically every team has one, but how many of these guys are true number ones? Maybe half. The rest are a bunch of solid number two/three type D-men that are forced into the number one role. True number ones, guys that can quarterback a power play and hold off the opposition’s top forwards for 26 minutes a game – guys like Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Pronger and Dion Phaneuf – are few and far between.
For more than a decade, we Rangers’ fans were treated to the sight of Brian Leetch doing his thing on the blueline, a bonafide number one defensemen. Wade Redden was brought in on a 6 yr, $39M deal before the season to be that number one guy, but he hasn’t come close to justifying that contract. Instead, the team’s top blueliner is the only defenseman on the roster that was actually drafted by the Blueshirts: Marc Staal.
The youngest player on the team is often the one that plays with the most maturity, as Staal’s impressive hockey instincts and quick decision making has him playing like a 10 yr vet. Standing 6’4″ and checking in around 200 lbs, he’s aggressive with the poke check and is helped by a stick reach that measures approximately 23 feet (give or take). Staal’s also picked up his physical play, standing up at the blueline and taking the body more than I ever remember him doing in the past. He was talked about as a potential shutdown defenseman at the time he was drafted, and it appears he’s well on his way to developing into that.
Right now, the knock on Staal’s game is his offense. While his instincts serve him well on defense, they haven’t yet made the jump to help him with his passing. He’s getting better though, and you can see it every game. I’m not sure if he’ll ever be a 36-40 point guy, but that’s not really his game.
The cool part about Staal is that you can see him getting better every day; he makes those two or three plays a game that remind you of just how solid he is. He may never develop into that true number one because of his offensive deficiencies, but when the game is on the line, there’s no one I’d rather see out there than #18.