Here’s my story for The Journal News and LoHud.com:
By Rick Carpiniello
The Rangers’ defenseman, alternate captain and the rock around which their still-young core has been built, didn’t play a game until Jan. 2 last season due to a concussion he suffered late in 2010-11.
And he wasn’t himself until the weeks leading into the playoffs. Staal stood out in the postseason, and he’s been raring go to ever since … which made the lockout all the more frustrating for him.
“It was tough,” Staal said. “I trained really hard all summer long. I felt great going into camp, or what should have been camp. So it was frustrating to have that dip. But I’m miles ahead of where I was last year starting into the season. I’m excited about that.”
He is healthy, has been symptom free for over a year, and that means the Rangers will have a strong, young, mobile top-four on their defense with Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Michael Del Zotto and Staal.
In fact, the downside of not having Staal at the start last season was the blessing of having other guys step up. McDonagh became a first-pair guy, teaming with Staal’s regular partner, Girardi, who made the all-star team. And with Michael Sauer also going down with a concussion, that further forced Del Zotto to bounce back from his awful sophomore season.
“I guess that’s just the way this team functions,” McDonagh said. “We know injuries are part of the game. When they happen, and hopefully they don’t, you want somenbody ready to step up. It doesn’t matter who you are and what stage you are in your career. If you’re on this team you know how we want to play and you know what’s expected of you. You just do that to the best of your ability.
“When we lose somebody of his caliber, his ability, his leadership skills on the bench, everything, he’s a huge piece to our team and a big key to our team this year is having him right off the bat. We’re looking forward to it, for sure.”
It’s easy to forget that the 6-4, 208-pound Staal is just 26 because he’s been around – this will be his sixth NHL season. Del Zotto is 22, McDonagh 23, and Girardi the old man of the top four at 28.
Staal still hasn’t scratched his ceiling. Rangers coach John Tortorella, who said he “really found out about our team” when Staal was out, wants him up the ice more, creating more offensively, and there sure are times when it looks like he can do more.
“It took some time,” Tortorella said about Staal’s comeback with limited ice time at first. “He was very frustrated how we did it when he first came back. I thought we did it the right way in not overloading him. He liked playing with Danny and all that. But as he started getting his minutes, I don’t know particularly when it happened, but there was a time, I think during the playoffs, he was really good. We had Del Z with him, we had a lot of different partners with him. I thought that’s when he made really good strides as a player.
“But we need more. He’s still is just a young man. Hopefully we can keep him healthy and he’ll keep improving. I showed a tape (Monday) of him up the ice, just joining the rush … from a couple of years ago, before he was hurt, and you lick your chops. He’s a really good player and still has room to keep on improving.”
That’s what he did when it counted most last year, at the end. This year, he gets to do it from Day 1.
AP photo, above.