When it's all said and done, the 2005 NHL Entry Draft may be among the best in terms of the sheer number of quality defenseman selected that weekend. Only time will tell, and while it's entirely premature to crown the Class of 2005 with any titles or trophies just yet, it's not out of the question that the group one day could be considered among the best.
Of course, the Class of '05 will forever be known as the Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes, and featured future stars like Carey Price, Gilbert Brule, Jack Skille, Paul Stastny and T.J. Hensick. But there were some wildly talented defensemen also taken in that draft. Players like Jack Johnson (No. 3), Ryan Parent (No. 18), Marc-Edouard Vlasic (No. 35), Kris Letang (No. 46), Kris Russell (No. 67), and even 6-foot-7 monster Vladimir Mihalik (No. 30) make up a pretty imposing group of young defenders.
“There were a lot taken high,” said Marc Staal, selected by the Rangers at No. 12 overall that weekend. “And they're all pretty good. So it will be interesting a few years down the road to look back and see how everyone is doing. That will be interesting.”
That day may not come for a while, but it sure is fun imagining how good this group may some day be.
Right now, though, they're in the infant stage of their NHL careers, where every game, for the most part, serves as a learning experience. At this age, defensemen like Staal are better after every game they played than before they laced their skates that night. Less than a month ago, Staal looked overwhelmed mentally and physically at times during the preseason. Lost battles were stacking up, but the more he's played, the more he's picked up, and Staal already is looking more comfortable in the early stages of the regular season.
Particularly with defensemen, confidence goes a long way -- the more of it you have, the better you play. Staal's getting there, slowly but surely.
“Obviously I feel a lot better,” he said. “I just feel a lot faster, a lot more stronger and I'm adapting to this game.”
Like Staal, the Class of 2005 is just getting its feet wet this fall. Staal made his NHL debut with the Rangers and is hoping to establish himself in the big league as quickly and seamlessly as his two brothers have.
Eric Staal already has won a Stanley Cup with Carolina and is regarded among the elite forwards in the game today, while younger brother Jordan burst on the scene last season as an 18-year-old who went on to break the NHL rookie record for shorthanded goals.
The jump from junior hockey to the NHL has not been as speedy for Marc, the middle of the three older Staal boys (the youngest, Jared, is draft eligible this June and is playing with the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves). While Eric and Jordan made a quick transition to the pro game, Marc is forecasted to take a little longer, by virtue of the position he plays. Marc is the only defenseman of the Staal quartet, and defensemen generally take longer to develop, unlike forwards who regularly have success at a younger age.
The biggest change for Marc has been adapting to the skill level of his NHL opponents and curbing his appetite to carry the puck up the ice. Staal was named the OHL's Outstanding Defenseman last season when he scored 34 points in his final junior season, following in the footsteps of former winners like Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis and Denis Potvin. Staal also was named the OHL's playoff MVP, despite not winning a championship, after scoring 20 points in 21 games for Sudbury.
Staal made a career out of bringing the puck up the ice, and now that's going to change. But that's OK; he's also pretty good at playing defense, too. Marc Staal's not a one-dimensional player, evidenced by his shutting down contemporary Evgeni Malkin at the 2006 World Juniors en route to being named the tournament's top defenseman. Most recently, Staal led the Rangers’ prospects to a championship at the annual NHL tournament in Traverse City, Mich.
“I think it's just a different game than junior,” Staal said. “You can't carry the puck nearly as much. You have to know where guys are and where to move the puck before you even get it. So that's the greatest thing, just know where your teammates are and to make the pass. Obviously in junior I liked to rush it, and carrying the puck up is always a lot of fun, it's a part of the game that I like. But for now, I'm just trying to keep it simple, not make any mistakes, and so far it's been good. So I think I'm just going to try to keep playing solid.”
The Rangers envision him as the cornerstone of their defense for many seasons to come. Therefore, he's taking his lumps now in his first NHL season. But the silver lining there is that Staal is a better player with every shift he takes, learning the ins and outs of the professional game. For a young player, the Rangers’ dressing room might be the ideal location to learn the trade as Staal's getting a master's degree in NHL competition from a constellation of hockey superstars like Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan, Chris Drury and Scott Gomez, all of whom are past Stanley Cup champions.
Head coach Tom Renney, recognizing the importance of grooming a young defenseman like Staal, has paired the freshman with veteran blueliner Jason Strudwick, who is as valuable as a stay-at-home defender as he is a locker room leader in Manhattan.
“He's a great defensive player, so when I slip up and make a mistake,” Staal says, “he's there to bail me out. Plus, he's a great guy off the ice. He's helped me out a lot.”
Perhaps nobody has helped out Staal though more than his brothers, who are quick to offer advice and share what they learned on their excellent adventure to NHL stardom.
“It's been good,” Marc says. “Obviously, Eric's played in the league already for three years and Jordan's got a year under his belt, so it's good having those guys in your ear telling you things. I mean, they've both had successful careers so far, so it's a big help talking to those guys.”
Those are calls the Rangers gladly would pay roaming charges on.