Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Marc Staal Is Back And Taking The Next Step Forward

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

The most under reported aspect of the Rangers current three game winning streak has been the return of Marc Staal.  Yes I am well aware that he did not actually go anywhere but in these last three games he has re-emerged as the best defenseman on this club and is showing why he was considered one of the best shutdown defensemen in the league.  Against Buffalo we had the return of Marian Gaborik which was then upstaged by the goals of Artem Anisimov.  Against Edmonton we had the Gaborik hat-trick the rising from the dead of Alex Frolov all of which would be overshadowed by Sean Avery, the brawl and what Erik Christensen would say on it.  Last night we had the brilliance of Lundqvist in his return from missing two games and the will of Dubinsky down the stretch to get that victory.  All in all we have three straight wins with different stars in each game, but leading the way for those victories in his quiet manner, but no so quiet game, has been Marc Staal.

Over the early season there have been many theories on why he has struggled not always in general, but in comparison to what is expected of a player of Staal caliber and history.  There have been theories about the contract; about changing defense partners; about the offensive pressure; and yes about the added responsibility of wearing a letter for the first time in the NHL.  I think all of those theories have their own degrees of merit, but of those I would take the desire to be more offensive as the key one in his slow start though do not forget he had a relatively slow start last season as well.  There is this push in the offseason and early in the year to get Staal more involved on the offensive side of the game instead of just letting him focus on his D and letting him instinctual decide when to move up offensively.  Last year they backed off the offensive push and he went back to focusing on his defensive responsibilities to have a great last three-quarters of the season all while watching his offensive numbers naturally advance.

I am not here to say that Marc Staal was awful early in the season because overall he wasn’t but he did have some horrific nights and while he showed a few signs of life at different points this stretch right now is his most consistent and best stretch of hockey this season.  It started to click some last week against Washington in which overall he played a pretty good game, but was still burned wide by Ovechkin leading to a goal.  That has been the most common problem for Staal in the early season, jumping inside while getting caught flat footed or reaching near the blue line and not being able to recover to the outside. 

Over the last three games we have seen a different Marc Staal though, maybe even different from the one we have come to expect as he strikes me as playing the most consistently physical hockey of his career thrown in with some chippy play too.  In the last three games he has gone up against some very talent players in Derek Roy, Taylor Hall and Sidney Crosby and in each game he has shut down the oppositions best player and best line.  It started with Derek Roy who he owned last Thursday physically punishing him and always being in the right position to take him out of the game officially ending the game with six hits.  Now there was one goal late in the second period of this game in which Staal and everyone else on the ice stood and watched instead of taking the body leading to a Mike Grier goal.  On Sunday against Edmonton it was Taylor Hall and Dustin Penner’s turn and by the end of the 8-2 slaughter he officially had seven hits accredited to him in the rout. 

In the back of my mind I started to wonder how much of this could be attributed to the fact that Staal was back with Dan Girardi and maybe that comfort level along with the way Girardi has been playing so physical and blocking so many shots this year if that was pushing Staal.  I would get my answer to that idea last night in Pittsburgh as he would spend the majority of the night paired with Steve Eminger at even strength.  Last night the competition level would be upped to another level as he would be matched up with Sidney Crosby for sure and potentially he and Evgeni Malkin at even strength and definitely both on the penalty kill.  In that advanced competition Staal raised his game playing another excellent game logging over 29 minutes of ice time, obviously scoring the short-handed goal to tie and helping Henrik Lundqvist shut down one of the best players in the league.  To me the evidence of his offensive skill was there on the goal but more importantly it was a pure instinct play not one where he was trying to force the action because he needed to be more offensive.  Yes the team needed a goal but he let Dubinsky do what he needed to do and just made a smart hockey play by following up and it allowed the offense to create itself.  When Staal is defense focused first his offense naturally flows while when he is thinking offense it makes him think and not react to the game thus hurting his defense.  So let Staal focus on the back end and the offense will come forward.

In this game he would only be given three official hits which can be a result of being shorted on the road or over-credited at home, but either way his physical presence was there during the play on and off the puck and after whistles.  There were at least three times last night where away from the puck Staal tossed Crosby to the ice and the best example of this new physicality would come in the third period when Staal and Matt Cooke would get into it for Cooked getting to close to Lundqvist and after some face washing Staal literally attempted a DDT like maneuver that would get both 2 minute minors.

We all think of Marc Staal as this laid back guy who makes the majority of his plays defensively with his stick and body positioning but if he continues to add this physicality to his game we could be looking at a guy ready to take the next step to the elite level class of defense.  If this play continues the Rangers and their fans will be thanking Glen Sather more and more for locking up this young cornerstone defenseman for the five years on his contract.