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Quietly coming of age in New York

by Brian Compton

The New York Rangers' Marc Staal has recorded a plus or even rating in 56 of 76 games played this season. Marc Staal highlights
The world is Marc Staal's oyster.

The New York Rangers' defenseman, with just 21 years of experience on this Earth, has gone from the farm lands of Ontario to the biggest city in the world. It's almost like falling asleep in Kansas and waking up in Oz.

"I think it's a pretty big adjustment coming from a pretty small city," Staal said "Now I'm living in Manhattan. It's gone pretty smooth. The organization, the coaches and everybody around has made it a lot easier on me. They've helped me get it out of the way. It's been fun."

There's little doubt that it has been, but how much fun can a professional athlete living in New York City afford to have? With the rigors of an 82-game schedule, how is one able to avoid all the distractions that the city that never sleeps provides?

"I think with the schedule, you're so busy all the time with games that it's hard to find time to get distracted," Staal said. "I'm just trying to get through the season and play the best I can."

Teammate Scott Gomez certainly knows what Staal is going through. Sure, the Rangers' center broke into the NHL with the New Jersey Devils, but the breathtaking Manhattan skyline sits behind The Meadowlands. Gomez, who played his first game with the Devils two months shy of his 20th birthday, admitted it can be difficult to stay focused with the bright lights shining in your face.

"Maybe for younger guy it could be an issue," Gomez said. "Your job is hockey and that's the most important thing. There's plenty of time to pick and choose your spots. In Manhattan, that's the only bad thing -- that it's every night if you want it."

Staal's teammates aren't the only ones looking after him. His older brother Eric, a center for the Carolina Hurricanes, says he checks in on Eric at least once a week, along with other members of the family.

"My wife more than me," cracked Eric. "We always keep an eye on him and stay in touch. It's a lot different than growing up in Thunder Bay. He's getting used to it. He's really enjoying it. Obviously, the hockey's going pretty good for him."

Since the first 10 games of the season, things indeed have been going well for Marc. After adjusting to life in the pros, the 12th-overall selection in the 2005 Draft has become one of New York's more reliable defensemen.

With two goals and eight assists in 76 games, Staal hasn't been a point producer, but that's the point, so to speak. He is learning about life in his own end. The more pertinent stats for Staal is plus-1 and his average ice time of 18:42 per game.

"I'm a lot more comfortable," he said. "My first 10 games, I was just trying to learn and trying to get through it. After that, every game I'm starting to get used to the style of play and certain teams and certain forechecks and things like that. I think every game, I'm learning and trying to improve. I'm starting to play with a little more confidence and a little more comfort."

Gomez has been impressed with just how much Staal has matured in a short amount of time. He also believes the latter, in time, could turn into one of the NHL's premier defensemen. Let's face it, Gomez knows plenty about them, having played alongside the likes of Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens for years in New Jersey.

"He's got the potential to be a 'Nieder' or a Scottie Stevens," Gomez gushed. "But you've got to just let him be himself, Marc Staal. When your name's put in those categories with those guys, it's pretty impressive."

While Staal, who said he admired Niedermayer and Los Angeles Kings defenseman Rob Blake, growing up, hasn't been a bigh scorer, his older brother is confident that he'll be putting more pucks in the net before too long. Eric came up with another stud defenseman when he was asked who his younger brother could potentially blossom into.

"Obviously his offensive game with time will come," Eric said. "I think he can be as good as a lot of those great defensemen, maybe like a Chris Pronger (of the Anaheim Ducks) with the long stick and reach and size. He's got that same type of edge to his game. Hopefully he turns out to be something like that."

Gomez had a better idea. He's excited about the potential of Marc Staal growing into Marc Staal. That would suit the Rangers just fine, as the youngster will enter the second half of the season trying to help his team during a heated playoff race.

"He went from a rookie to being one of our steady 'D'," Gomez said. "The future looks great in New York. At the same time, he's a special one. Sometimes you want to get on him, but then you realize the kid's 21-years-old. He's playing outstanding in the NHL. He's important. We're going to need him down the stretch. He's a great kid, too. That's also important."

"As a team, we've been through a lot with the media scrutiny and the slumps that we've had," Staal said. "But we've always found ways to overcome it and start winning again. We're just trying to do that now again. As a player, and the first year for me, I'm just trying to help the team win any way I can."

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