New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal can look back, one year after sustaining a concussion, and be candid about mistakes made along the way. “The one thing I would have changed is, I shouldn’t have played,” Staal said Monday after practice. Staal was injured last Feb. 22, when he was checked by his brother Eric, a forward with the Carolina Hurricanes. He missed the next four games, and another two in March. In hindsight, Staal acknowledged he should have sat out longer. “It’s nobody’s fault,” Staal said. “Since the off-season, I’m confident we handled everything the right way. It was a learning process for me and everyone else. This is still new territory.”
Staal has played 21 games this season, beginning with the Winter Classic on Jan. 2. Typically a shutdown defenseman in previous seasons, Staal has played more than 20 minutes in only five games. But there have been positive signs; four of those games have been since Feb. 1. After going scoreless in his first 17 games, Staal has a goal and an assist in his last four. Coach John Tortorella said Staal’s “stick has been much better,” meaning the defenseman has been more active deflecting shots and disrupting opponents’ lanes in the Rangers’ zone. Staal credits Jim Ramsay, the Rangers’ trainer, for preparing him to play without a proper training camp. Brad Richards, who dealt with a concussion while a member of the Dallas Stars at this time last season, provided emotional support.
“You have to have endured what I and other players have gone through with concussions to really be able to relate and help,” Richards said. “I heard he was struggling. I didn’t even know him that well, but we started to talk. There are certain humps you have to get over before you start feeling better and can think about skating again. “With concussions, there is so much anxiety that few people understand. All the talk bothers you more than you’d think. It’s not an exact science, which is why you’re going to see players — whether they’re teammates or opponents — speaking more openly with each other about concussions than ever before.” When the Rangers play at Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, the Penguins will be without Sidney Crosby, sidelined after a recurrence of concussion symptoms. The Rangers are without defenseman Michael Sauer, who sustained a concussion Dec. 5 from a hit by Toronto’s Dion Phaneuf. Sauer is not skating, and Tortorella said he had not seen him around the rink in a while.
Staal offered compassion for what players like Crosby and Sauer are going through. “You look around at Crosby, Michael and the others and hope they have a day when they wake up and feel good again,” Staal said. “You can’t help but root for them.” Staal’s return could be viewed as a sign of hope. “He’s more comfortable and he’s playing more physically,” goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said. “His timing is much better. It looks like his offense is starting to come back, too.” But for Staal, who thrived on being the Rangers’ most valuable defenseman, his comeback is not complete until he is playing more than 25 minutes each game and in every crucial situation.
Tortorella said Monday that Staal had not been satisfied by his standing in the rotation. “Even though we feel he’s a big part of it, he doesn’t,” Tortorella said of his club’s first-place standing in the Eastern Conference. “It’s frustrating for him.” The rapid development of the youngsters Ryan McDonagh (average ice time: 25 minutes 10 seconds) and Michael Del Zotto (22:38), along with the All-Star ascent of Dan Girardi (a league-high 27:04), has enabled the Rangers to break Staal in slowly. “Of course I want to play as much as I can,” Staal said. “But it’s not like I have any gripes. Those guys have stepped up and been tremendous.”
With 25 games left in the regular season, and the playoffs beginning in April, Staal will have time to prove he is back to form. “He is used to being one of the main ingredients,” said the assistant general manager Jim Schoenfeld, who also works closely with the defensemen as an assistant. “I know he has struggled with that. But we have spoken with him. The play of Michael and Ryan and Danny has allowed us to give Marc more time to get comfortable. “If he keeps getting better at the rate he’s been, he’s going to play big minutes for us when it counts the most. By improving at this pace, it’s like we have added a top-pair defenseman before the trade deadline without making a trade.”
New York Times