The New York Rangers currently sit in first place in the Eastern Conference with a tremendous 22-8-4 record through 34 games this season.
Making the record even more impressive is the number of injuries they have battled through on defense with the most significant being All-Star defender Marc Staal.
Staal has been sidelined for the entire season while he recovers from post-concussion issues from a hit delivered by brother Eric Staal on February 22.
After months of stagnation in his recovery, Staal has gone from bring completely shut down to being cleared for contact in the last five weeks.
The speed of Staal’s recent recovery has people wondering if he could return to the lineup in next week’s Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.
Staal has refused to rule himself out the game, which only furthers the speculation of a potential return.
Andrew Gross at Ranger Rants
had the following comments from Staal following his first contact action in months…
“I did some battle drills, took some hits,” Staal said. “I don’t feel great after two days off but I feel good enough physically to do it. It feels really good. It’s been a long time. It’s the next step to get back to playing…We’ll see how the next few days go with the hitting. I wasn’t hitting very hard. I still need some more work (on conditioning), I don’t feel like I’m ready to play 25 minutes like last year. Obviously, getting more contact, getting more hits, that’s the best way to tell if I’m ready to take it into a game, getting hit and getting into the grind of the season. I haven’t talked to (trainer Jim Ramsey), I’m not sure what tomorrow will bring. I totally felt fully confident going on the ice to take some hits. There’s no doubt in my mind it was the right thing to do. I knew they (my teammates) weren’t going to run me into the glass. It feels like I’m a step behind, knowing where they’re going and what they’re going to do.”
Staal does not sound like a player who would assess himself as ready to compete in an NHL game right now, but that is also Staal comparing where he is right now to the level he expects of himself.
Marc Staal at 75-80% effectiveness is better than about 85-90% of the defenders in the NHL when it comes to shutting down opposing offensive players.
That said, there is no way that Staal should be in the lineup next Monday when the Rangers take the ice in Citizens Bank Ballpark.
The return of Staal to the lineup would be great, and with the injuries that the Rangers have in their defensive corps they could certainly use him, but given where the Rangers are right now and his long-term importance to the organization there is no reason that the cautious approach should not continue.
Larry Brooks of the New York Post puts Staal's potential return as happening within the next two weeks.
All concussions are certainly different, but the Crosby comparisons have been used often in talking about Staal and removing the fact that Crosby is back out with another concussion, all should remember that Crosby had almost a month of contact practices before he stepped back into regular season action.
The burden on the rest of the defense and having to press Stu Bickel and Tim Erixon into action is not ideal, but each player has risen to the sustained enough to not take any unnecessary chances with Staal. The more conditioning and comfort Staal gets with taking contact the better off he will be because of the physical style of play he has to bring to the ice to be fully effective.