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There's no stall in Marc Staal's development

by Dan Rosen
Marc Staal has become a mainstay on the New York Rangers blue line in his rookie season.
Marc Staal didn’t have to look far for professional advice.

Before the New York Rangers’ rookie defenseman played even an NHL exhibition game, he had four shoulders to lean on and two brains to pick with brothers Eric and Jordan already immersed in the NHL game and lifestyle.

“They talked to him about what to expect and how to handle himself, and I have been impressed all year,” said Ranger veteran Jason Strudwick, Staal’s road roommate. “To be 20-years-old in the NHL is a pretty exciting time, but it hasn’t taken over his life.”

The same way Eric and Jordan began their careers with solid debut seasons, Marc has done enough through 38 games to prove he belongs, too. The former first-round draft pick has become a mainstay on the New York blue line, earning close to 18 minutes of ice time per game.

“What he has been able to show us obviously is he’s capable of dealing with everything,” Ranger coach Tom Renney said. “He has shown such an ability to cope and deal with whatever we throw at him that the sky is the limit. Just keep on playing.”

Staal said his transition to the fast-paced NHL lasted all of 10 games before he started to feel the game and think the game the way he used to while playing for the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves.

“Once I got used to the pace and style of play – it’s so much different from juniors – it came so much easier,” Staal said. “If you want to learn every day, I think it just gets easier every day.”

Renney and the Rangers’ top brass had already seen enough of Staal in both the OHL and the last two World Junior Championships to know, and hope, he could do enough in September to make the roster for opening night in October.

Once Staal did, the test was to see if he had some staying power. If he was overwhelmed and simply not ready, the Rangers had Thomas Pock, who played 44 games last season, waiting in the wings in Hartford.

No one, though, envisioned Staal failing, not with his pedigree and background.

“For obvious reasons most of his hockey sense is innate. It’s not something he learned in Sudbury. A lot of it he had naturally,” Renney said of Staal, who grew up playing with his three brothers on the family’s homemade rink in Thunder Bay, Ont.

“When you jump from junior hockey to the National Hockey League, never mind the American Hockey League, everything is happening quicker and you’ve got to be able to assimilate the process. He does a terrific job with that because of his thinking skills and he has great poise. The pendulum is obviously on the upswing, but we have to be careful.”

Which is why the Rangers haven’t thrown the entire playbook at Staal just yet.

Staal is still not a power-play regular, but his average ice time has gone up roughly six minutes per game to its current 18 minutes since Nov. 1 when veteran defenseman Marek Malik went out with an injury that kept him shelved for a full month. He’s also averaging close to two minutes per game on the penalty kill.

“It’s the same cliché things I guess, but it’s true. Work hard and stay positive as much as you can,” Staal added. “If you start getting negative or thinking too much it affects your game. You have to adjust as fast as possible.”

“Marc is just one of those guys with a long fuse,” Renney said. “He’s very poised, confident and calm.”

Staal, though, still hasn’t shown much in the way of offense. He only has two goals and five assists to go along with 43 shots on goal, fourth among Rangers defensemen, but mainly because he’s concentrating on the speed and play in his own zone.

Averaging less than a minute per game on the power play isn’t doing much to liven up his stat sheet either.

“Positioning in my own zone, knowing where people are, and staying tighter with the checks, one-on-one, are things I need to work on,” Staal said.

“Defense is a very tough position to learn, more so than forward,” Strudwick said, “but he’s watching and learning and skating really well.”

Well enough, in fact, to convince Renney that serious power play minutes are in his not-too-distant future. Staal was a major power play contributor in Sudbury, where he scored 16 goals and dished out 67 assists over his final two seasons.

Renney knows that.

“Having watched him in junior there were things there that would suggest that he could play a power play. He may not quarterback it, but he could be a flanker on it or a shooter,” Renney said. “Having said that, I think you’ve seen his ability to move the puck, hang people on the net, skate it up the ice, join the attack, and lead the attack in some cases. There is obviously a level of comfort there for him with that.”

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