NHL.com continues its preview of the 201314 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
Paul Ranger walked away from the hectic, pressure-packed, high-profile life of a professional hockey player four years ago and stepped into the unpredictable world of a 20-something drifter trying to find his way.
He shuffled around, testing out various roles away from the limelight, only to find his way back to the NHL.
At 28 years old, Ranger is embarking on his second hockey life with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who may soon be able to lay claim to the finding biggest bargain of the 2013 free-agent class.
Toronto signed Ranger to a one-year contract worth $1 million on July 24. He was once a 25-minute-per-night, point-producing defenseman for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"I think he looks great," Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf told NHL.com. "He's had a very good camp for our team and he's played very well in the exhibition games. I think he's going to have a real good year and he's a huge boost to our defense because he's a guy that has a lot of experience, he's played lots of games in the NHL and he's looking real good."
Ranger was basically invisible to people in professional hockey for roughly three years. He cited personal reasons in taking an unpaid leave of absence from the Lightning on Oct. 24, 2009. He won't talk about what those personal reasons were or what he did in the next three years.
He started coaching a triple-A bantam team in Whitby, Ontario, in 2011. The itch returned and the Maple Leafs, who claim they'd been monitoring him from afar during his time away from pro hockey, gave Ranger an opportunity last year by signing him to play for the Toronto Marlies, their American Hockey League affiliate.
He played in 51 regular-season games and had eight goals and 17 assists for 25 points to go along with a plus-16 rating. He was impressive.
"Last year, at times he looked too good for the American Hockey League," Toronto general manager Dave Nonis told reporters on Sept. 11, "but it was his first year back, he hadn't played for a while and it was important for him in his own mind to play a full season of hockey just to get the game back underneath him."
Nonis thinks Ranger can be one of Toronto's top-four defensemen.
Ranger fought through tears as he described his opportunity to a group of Toronto-area reporters on the first day of training camp.
"I'm so emotional about it because it means so much to me," he said.
It doesn't appear he's letting those emotions get the better of him. Ranger is playing well and definitely having fun, even in the pressure cooker that is Toronto. The latter was most definitely evident on Sept. 21, when a smirking Ranger tried to beat Buffalo Sabres goalie Jhonas Enroth in a shootout by kicking his stick as a way to shoot the puck.
Randy Carlyle, the usually stoic coach of the Maple Leafs, was laughing along with the rest of the team after watching Ranger's unusual attempt. Ranger was still smirking as he skated back to the bench.
"I never saw that before," Carlyle told reporters. "Interesting."
Interesting is a word that aptly describes Ranger now. Intriguing and mysterious also apply.
Ranger won't say much about why he gave up the life of a pro hockey player almost four years ago, but it's part of his past and that's apparently where it's staying. He's back in the life now and if the Maple Leafs have what they think they have, then Ranger may not be such a bargain going forward.
"He's a big addition to our team," Phaneuf said.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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