One month into the return of Marc Staal
from a concussion, New York Rangers
coach John Tortorella is facing a conundrum with his top defenseman -- in order to get Staal back to form, he needs to play more minutes, but since he's still behind the curve after missing so much time, there's a danger in playing someone who isn't ready to handle more minutes.
"It's just too far along in the season and Marc has missed so much time," Tortorella said. "It wouldn't be fair to him or the team."
Staal, who led the Rangers in ice time the past two seasons, missed all of training camp and the first 36 games of the season before returning for the Winter Classic on Jan. 2. As expected, Staal's play in his first 12 games has been choppy; he has no points and is minus-4 while playing 17:16 per game, about eight minutes fewer than he averaged last season.
The 25-year-old has played as little as 12:06 in one contest while topping out at 24:58 against the Pittsburgh Penguins
on Jan. 19. The game against the Penguins was one where Staal's lack of readiness to return to big minutes was most evident. He made two gaffes in the third period -- the first a bad pinch that led to a tie-breaking goal and a misplay on a puck played around the boards in his own zone that led to another goal.
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During January, Staal has been on the ice for six goals scored and 10 goals against, two of which were the only power-play goals the Rangers allowed last month.
There have been bright spots, too, but they have often come with negative plays that have led to goals.
Staal said he wants to play more, but understands he won't be able to work out the kinks in his game unless he first shows Tortorella he's ready to handle the responsibility in smaller doses.
"Everyone wants to play more," Staal told NHL.com. "That doesn't exclude me. I have to be more solid in my game, and hopefully more minutes will come after that.
"Yeah, it's everything. Getting more comfortable, playing more, getting into more situations I'm used to. I'm just trying to build confidence."
While Tortorella understands his player's frustration, he has no interest in hurting the team by feeding Staal more minutes that he knows he needs but clearly can't handle just yet. With the Rangers immersed in a battle for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, Tortorella can't afford to take a risk while Staal rediscovers his game.
"I am not going to force the minutes with Marc," Tortorella said. "I think he's had some good minutes, I think he's had some struggles. I think the guys who have stepped up in his place have played pretty well. If we weren't getting the play from some people, maybe we'd try to force it along the way. We're not going to do that.
"He's still very inconsistent. To me, it's going to be like that for a while. It's well-chronicled that when guys miss camp, holding out or whatever it may be, it's a struggle all year long. This is a guy that's missed camp and missed a ton of time after camp."
Tortorella has the luxury of patience thanks to members of his defensive core excelling while Staal was recovering and continuing to do so since his return.
has embraced playing alongside Dan Girardi
on the team's top pairing, the spot Staal occupied the past two seasons. The second pairing has been anchored by Michael Del Zotto
, who has been a revelation after struggling during his sophomore campaign. With Michael Sauer
out with a concussion, Anton Stralman
, a player Tortorella wasn't all that thrilled about adding in November, has provided offensive with an occasional big hit on the second unit.
That's allowed Tortorella to bring Staal along slowly on the third pairing with rookie Stu Bickel
. Staal has occasionally taken shifts with Del Zotto, but has been the team's fifth defensemen for the most part since returning.
Staal has no illusions about his play. He just wants to make progress and earn his coach's trust again.
"I feel alright," Staal said about his health before discussing his play. "Obviously, I could be better. I'm trying to prove everything's back."
Tortorella might not have complete confidence in Staal today, but he believes he'll see him return to the form that made him the Rangers' most reliable defenseman in recent years.
"I think Marc is going to be a really good player for us when it's all said and done," Tortorella said. "When it comes back completely, we can't forecast that. I'm not going to do special things to get him going, because I believe the others guys and have earned that time to keep on playing.
"I know Marc Staal
. Marc Staal
wants to get the 26-27 minutes because that's just what his makeup is. But we're going to have to make that call and just keep on trying to help him through and see where we go with it."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo