It’s hard to count on a player that hasn’t played a full season since 2010. It’s hard to rely on a player that has been told he’ll never truly be 100% again. It’s also hard to know where to begin with a player who has seen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi (by necessity) pass him on the depth chart. Marc Staal is a luxury. It’s this fact that should make Rangers fans giddy with excitement.
In the 2012/13 regular season the Rangers were 11th overall in goals against despite just half a season from Staal, an underwhelming season from Girardi, a yo-yo like year from Del Zotto, all the while incorporating John Moore into the line-up and enduring re-treads such as Roman Hamrlik. In short, the Rangers defense was in a giant state of flux last season and they still were around the top third in the league.
The season before, Staal again only played approximately half the year and the Rangers were second in the league defensively. A lot has to do with John Tortorella’s system but also the players at his disposal. If the Rangers can count on Marc Staal playing twenty minutes plus per game the Rangers will possess a dominant defense this year, especially if Alain Vigneault’s approach generates more puck possession. If Staal is back close to full strength the Rangers may have the best top four defense in the league.
While there are a lot of if’s to all of this, at this stage it can be reasonably assumed Staal can be penciled in for a significant role on the Rangers. If he wasn’t going to be good-to-go then surely Hockey Canada wouldn’t have invited him to their Olympic orientation camp this month. Staal’s presence means so much to the likes of Del Zotto, Stralman and Moore. With Staal playing 20+, those three players are put into more appropriate roles and are subsequently better ‘protected’. It also means Vigneault can play to the strengths of his puck moving defensemen.
Staal is the biggest x-factor on the Rangers because no one is sure just what to expect from him this season. No one’s contribution has a greater impact on others. Of course, this team will only go as far as Henrik Lundqvist and Rick Nash are able to lead them but Staal has a direct impact on an entire unit and that’s without factoring in Staal’s still-as-yet unreached offensive ceiling.
Every time Staal has appeared close to fulfilling his offensive talent he’s been beset by an injury. It’s easy to forget Staal is still only 26. He’s only really just entering his prime and has a substantial amount of experience and adversity to draw on. If Staal can patrol the blueline like he once did, the Rangers are cup contenders. It’s that kind of potential impact that makes Marc Staal so essential to the Rangers, even if they don’t yet know to what extent.