Friday, September 23, 2011

Staaling For Time

As the Rangers magical mystery tour continues tonight in a Hudson rematch with the Devils, they might not have Marc Staal to start the season when they go to Europe. The 24-year old All-Star defenseman who only missed five games last season, is still having lingering post concussion symptoms stemming from a concussion suffered at the hands of older brother Eric during a 4-3 win last February 22.

Reflecting back, it was a ferocious hit near the end of the second period. At the time, nothing was made of it. Funny how things turn out. While the Pens foolishly brought Sidney Crosby back too soon from his first concussion only to see their captain suffer a second on a Victor Hedman check from behind, the Rangers kept and Staal kept his under wraps. Instead, the former '05 first round pick sat out three games for a knee injury and missed two more down the stretch for unspecified reasons. The club's top blueliner played 20 more games, including all five alongside overlooked partner Dan Girardi in another physical showdown with Alex Ovechkin. Perhaps that explains a couple of hiccups that led to two Washington goals in Game One.

Nobody can question Staal's toughness. His willingness to compete is commendable. Especially without Ryan Callahan. However, where was last year's team going even if everyone was healthy? In hindsight, it probably made better sense to rest the kid from Thunder Bay with an eye towards the future. At 24, he's entering his fifth year. Following career highs in assists (22), points (29), power play goals (4), and shorthanded goals (2), expectations have increased for the budding shutdown defenseman. However, with Staal unable to participate in full body contact drills and still having lingering effects (headaches), the Rangers are being cautious. It's unlikely he'll fly to Europe for the season's start. Like Crosby, he'll continue to practice on his own and rest.

Could all this have been avoided if the club was more careful? When it comes to head injuries, nothing's minor. You're entering the unknown. Some athletes recover better while others need more time. With the news not encouraging, the Blueshirts very might be without their D anchor for October. If that's the difference between health and risk, the organization is better off long-term. Sure. With Brad Richards' arrival, most Garden Faithful can't wait for the season to begin. Count us in. Regardless, it'll still be a challenge in an improved East just to reach the postseason. If that means Staal sits and we miss, it's for the best. You don't toy around with a player's future. We've seen some sad cases of great talent (Lafontaine, Lindros, Kariya, Stevens) who were never the same. While all the hoopla has been over Crosby, the Blues' David Perron still hasn't been medically cleared to practice a year later- only emphasizing how scary head injuries are.

There's no magic potion. With Staal, the Rangers must hope he has a full recovery and returns up to speed. They won't rush him. What that means for their season is very much up in the air. Staal is part of a strong core (Girardi, Dubinsky, Callahan, Anisimov, Lundqvist) that want to take the next step as a team. Richards' addition should aid Marian Gaborik. There's also the anticipation of sophomores Ryan McDonagh and Mike Sauer while fans are optimistic about Tim Erixon. Subtract Staal and expectations decrease. The Rangers don't exactly boast a lot of talent. Defense is still the team's biggest strength. Take out our top minute logger who's a superb penalty killer and it throws everything out of wack. Do we really want Mike Del Zotto and Steve Eminger both playing if Erixon is sent down? The team is said to have interest in ex-Ranger Paul Mara, who knows the system. That would be just a stop gap.

Nobody knows how long Staal will be out. That's the unpredictable nature of the human brain. For now, it's keep your fingers crossed after Halloween. No tricking or treating about it.

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