Rangers' Staal becomes a go-to defenseman
Before this Rangers season began, there were two genuine stars dotting a young roster. Henrik Lundqvist had established himself as one of the best goaltenders in the league; Marian Gaborik was coming off a 42-goal season, his first as a Ranger.
Once the puck dropped on the season, another star emerged, the sort that the Rangers haven't had in decades: A steady, minutes-eating, shutdown defenseman.
Marc Staal had struggled at times over the previous season-plus under John Tortorella, trying to balance own-zone play with jumping up to join the rush and becoming the top-pair monster Tortorella wanted Staal to be.
It didn't take long to see that Staal, at 23, was ready to make the leap.
The trick was getting him into camp. He didn't arrive in New York until the eve of training camp, signing a five-year, $19.875-million contract just two days before the Rangers convened in September. The restricted free agent had little intention of going elsewhere, but he hardly has sat back on his new pile of money.
"The next five years, I don't have to worry about going through a negotiation or being in a contract year," Staal said at the time. "I can concentrate on improving, being better and being the best player I can be, and see where it goes from there."
It's gone well, as evidenced by the fact that Staal has joined Lundqvist - as well as big brother Eric Staal - in Raleigh for today's All-Star Game. Marc Staal, who was selected seventh by his big brother in Friday's choose-up draft, likely won't be the flashiest player on the ice; his 19 points this season are the fewest of any All-Star, but there still was no doubt he'd be on the team.
As for Lundqvist, the way he started this season, there were some doubts he'd be in Raleigh. He had a very pedestrian 7-8-1 record and a 2.90 goals-against average through Nov. 25. After making some technical adjustments with goaltending coach Benoit Allaire, Lundqvist followed up a 5-3 loss to the Lightning with a shutout win over the Panthers the day after Thanksgiving.
Since that game, Lundqvist has been more than just an All-Star, he's been a Vezina Trophy candidate. He's only 14-8-2, but with five shutouts and a 1.90 GAA.
"He's had that look when he just doesn't seem like he's going to let anything by him some nights," Tortorella said.
The All-Star Game has a little bit of luster off, coming off the thrilling Olympic tournament last year and missing luminaries such as Penguins teammates Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who are out of today's game with injuries.
The new choose-up wrinkle made for some fun moments on Friday night, with Eric and Marc Staal taking some brotherly jabs at one another and the Leafs' Phil Kessel getting a car and $20,000 in charitable donations for being the All-Star draft's "Mr. Irrelevant."
But the game itself just means that the meaningful games are a day closer to returning. Marc Staal, Lundqvist and the Rangers will take to the Madison Square Garden ice on Tuesday to face the Penguins, who likely won't have Crosby back from a concussion. He was cleared Saturday to begin light skating after missing nine straight.
Unless Team Staal dedicates itself to Marc Staal's physical style in his own zone, a Ranger won't leave Raleigh with the MVP trophy. But that matters little to either player, who has loftier goals once the teams reconvene Monday.