Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Marc Staal Is The Most Irreplaceable New York Ranger

Harry How/Getty Images
When Marc Staal left the Rangers bench last night and headed for the locker room with trainer Jim Ramsay every fan of this franchise held their collective breath and was praying for it to be something minor.  The initial assumption was that the injury to Marc had something to do with his brother Eric flattening him with a hit late in the second period and seeing on the replay how his head smacked off the ice and there was a whiplash type effect on his neck.  After the game, coach John Tortorella said that the injury was in fact a tweak to his knee that was sustained on the first shift of the game and got progressively worse as time went on.  We do not yet know the severity of the injury, but the coach did not believe it to be serious.
The level of reaction to the injury and fear over what it might be made me think about a question I had asked earlier in the year about which New York Ranger player is the most irreplaceable for what they bring to the team.  Unfortunately for the Rangers nearly all of the guys one would think of to fit in that category have been injured at different parts of the year for different amounts of time.  The team has been able to withstand those injuries to be in the position they are today.  For me the debate about which player is the most irreplaceable truly comes down to two options: Henrik Lundqvist and Marc Staal.  
As great as Henrik Lundqvist is, and he is the backbone of the hockey club, Marc Staal is the most irreplaceable New York Ranger.  I do not look at that statement as a slight on Henrik Lundqvist in the least because it is not a comparison of who is a better player, but a statement as to the level of importance that Marc Staal has built for himself this season with this team. 
Every night Staal is asked to shut down the best player on the opposition and he has done that an All-Star caliber level with a level of consistency that has moved him into the elite level of defenders in the NHL.  In addition to those responsibilities both at even strength and while killing penalties, Staal has seen a significant increase in his role on the power play, which all combined has seen his minutes jump to nearly 26 per game and upwards of 30 on many nights.  Where do you find a player to replace a number 1 defender that plays those minutes and in all situations? 
If Staal leaves the lineup there comes a natural reordering of the Rangers defensive core and what has been a strength suddenly starts to look relatively weak.  The first domino that would come is rookie Ryan McDonagh being forced move up to now play against top line opponents instead of second line forwards.  The increase in the level of competition and additional minutes are things that McDonagh has shown he can likely handled with his play thus far, but what happens behind him leaves much to be desired.  Based on the recent minute distribution the coaching staff has little faith in Michael Del Zotto, Matt Gilroy or Steve Eminger to play significant minutes right now and especially against higher quality competition.
If Staal is out and McDonagh elevated it would force the elevation of a struggling Del Zotto, or Matt Gilroy from the third to the second pairing or possibly Steve Eminger, a player who has been a healthy scratch for 10 of the last 11 games would have to suddenly play in the Rangers top four on defense.  The difference in the quality of the Rangers top four of Staal, Girardi, McDonagh, Sauer as opposed to McDonagh, Girardi, Sauer, Del Zotto/Gilroy/Eminger is significant, especially on the defensive side.  With the coaches lack of faith in bottom three options it is tough to imagine any level of comfort that would be found in having to elevate one of these three to a more important position.
Compare that scenario to the situation in goal where the change would be from All-Star Henrik Lundqvist to quality backup Martin Biron and the drop-off does not seem as drastic in net.  It is absolutely true that on any given night Lundqvist is capable of stealing a game for the Rangers, but Biron has kept the Rangers in nearly every game he has started this season and given the team a chance to win.  His quality in his role has given the team and the coaching staff full faith in him to step in if necessary for Lundqvist, which is more than some of the defense has done in the case of a Staal injury. 
The combination of what Staal brings, the drop off when alterations have to be made to the Rangers defensive core and how well Biron has played add up to make Marc Staal not necessarily the better New York Ranger, but the more irreplaceable one.  Hopefully, with that in mind, the reports on Staal will be good over the next few days and he will be right back in there on Friday night against Ovechkin and the Capitals.