As he entered his rookie campaign just under a year ago, Marc Staal
faced high expectations simply by virtue of his last name.
|As a rookie in 2007-08, Marc Staal routinely played with the kind of poise it takes other NHL players years to develop. |
With two siblings already starring in the NHL-- older brother Eric in Carolina and younger brother Jordan in Pittsburgh -- Staal had to prove himself not only as a Ranger but as a member of hockey's new first family. To his credit, he not only proved he belonged, but the stalwart defenseman exceeded all expectations in emerging as a mainstay on the Rangers' blueline.
Selected by the Rangers 12th overall in the first round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Staal skated in 80 games as a rookie, recording two goals and eight assists for 10 points, 42 penalty minutes and a plus-two plus/minus rating. He was named to the Eastern Conference YoungStars team, where he netted a goal and an assist during the nationally-televised All-Star Weekend showcase for up-and-coming players.
While Staals potential contribution was an unknown going into the season, by the time the playoffs ended, he was a vital contributor, ranking second in the team in average icetime (22:01) during the postseason. At the time the Blueshirts' playoff run ended, the 6-foot-4, 205-pounder led all rookies in plus/minus rating (plus-five) and was tied for fifth in the league among rookies in assists (two) and points (three), and seventh in goals (one).
Now, with one season under his belt, Staal is eager and ready to get back out on the ice.
"I've been up at Thunder Bay (Ontario) pretty much all summer getting ready for next season," the 21-year old recently said earlier this week at the Madison Square Garden Training Center, where he worked as a guest instructor at the Rangers Youth Hockey Camp. "I took two or three weeks off after the season, but it's been pretty much training in the morning and getting ready for next year."
Also, as has become the norm, it has been whirlwind summer for the Staal clan.
First, Marc's younger brother Jordan had a chance to play for the Stanley Cup when the Pittsburgh Penguins one the Eastern Conference.
"It was pretty cool seeing (Jordan) play for the Cup," said Staal. "Obviously I wanted to be playing instead of him, but he had a great experience with it. Obviously they came up short, but he was pretty excited about it."
A few weeks later, the youngest Staal brother, 17-year old winger Jared, was drafted in the second round of the NHL Entry Draft, 49th overall, by the Phoenix Coyotes.
"That was another great moment for the family," said Marc. "He was very excited to kind of get it out of the way, and now he knows what he has to do to be successful in Phoenix. He was very excited, and so are we.
"My parents, obviously they have dealt with this for the last five or six years already, so it's nothing new for them. But obviously they are very excited and proud of him. They are proud of all of us."
The Rangers themselves made a splash at the draft, selecting highly-regarded OHL blueliner Michael Del Zotto
20th overall. That pick caught Staal's eye, as he recognized just how committed the organization has become to developing a strong corps of defenders.
"We have a lot of good, young talent on the back end right now," he said. "Adding (Del Zotto) along with guys like (Bobby) Sanguinetti and Michael Sauer
, it's very exciting. It keeps us on our toes and makes sure we're sharp all the time. It's good to see a strong corps back on the blueline and that we are going in that direction."
Still, Staal isn't looking beyond 2008-09 right now.
"Obviously we made a lot of changes," he said "but I don't think it is going to be as dramatic as others are saying. Obviously we have the same coaches and their system remains the same, and that won't change. But there will be a lot of new guys coming into the room, and I'm sure there will be no problems. No jealousy or anything like that."
With a great deal of turnover and new blood inn the lineup, Staal is eager to get together and learn from his new teammates.
"I really like the way the team looks right now," he said. "It's good. It's exciting. Obviously (Wade) Redden is an All-Star defenseman, so I'm excited to be on the same ice as him. And we added a couple of great forwards too, so it should be a very exciting training camp."
With the addition of free agents Redden and Dmitri Kalinin, it will be a vastly different defensive corps next season manning the blueline at MSG.
"I don't know who I'll be paired up with, and it's not my decision," said Staal. "It's up to the coaching staff, and I have all the faith that they'll put together the right combinations."
As the Rangers focused on a youth movement following the 2004-05 NHL lockout, Staal has formed strong bonds with several of his teammates who he's made sure to keep in contact with over the long summer.
"I've talked a lot with (Dan) Girardi and (Ryan) Callahan the last few months, and also (Nigel) Dawes," he said. "Most of the younger guys, we keep in contact fairly often. We try to keep hockey aside, concentrating on putting it aside for a few months."
Nonetheless, in the coming weeks, Staal is ready to devote himself to another quest for the Stanley Cup.
"Probably when August rolls around I'll start skating a bit more, about four or five times a week, concentrating on getting ready for the season and getting in good shape for Training Camp," he said. "We have a bit of a shorter Training Camp this year because of the Europe trip, so it's really important for all of us to be in good shape this year coming into camp."
In a unique twist, the Rangers will open the season with a home-and-home series against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Prague, Czech Republic, on Oct. 4 and Oct. 5, and it's an opportunity that the young backliner relishes.
"It's pretty cool to get to open the season in a place like Prague," said Staal, who won multiple gold medals in international tournaments as a member of the Canadian World Junior Team. "With the Olympic-size ice, it should be interesting to play an NHL game on that. But I'm excited for it. It'll be something different, and hopefully it grows the game for us too."
Whether it's in Prague, New York, or at the MSG Training Center in Westchester, Staal said he is eager to get back to what he loves doing most -- playing hockey.
"I had a lot of fun last year," he said. "I learned a lot, and coming into next year with that experience, as little as it is, I think it will help a lot and that things will only continue to get better."