By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
Elite, shutdown defenseman don’t grow on trees.
Rangers alternate captain Marc Staal is a rare commodity. The 27-year-old is a smooth-skating, hard-hitting player blessed with tremendous strength and a long reach that allows him to dominate one-on-one battles. He couples these physical traits with a quick anticipation and a high hockey IQ.
The Rangers know exactly how valuable Staal is to their cause. When he’s missing from the lineup, there’s a hole that’s impossible to fill. It’s no coincidence the Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final this year, given Staal’s return to health after he contended with serious injuries during previous seasons.
Throughout the playoffs, Staal effectively neutralized the Eastern Conference’s marquee forwards. One only needs to re-watch tapes of Staal tormenting Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby and his linemates to understand his impact — when healthy.
The retooled Penguins will be stronger this coming season. P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty, Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens will remain a force for years to come. The Tampa Bay Lighting are equipped for a deep playoff run after adding some outstanding veterans to gel with their abundance of youth.
If the Rangers wish to make a return appearance — or two, or three — in the Stanley Cup Final, locking down Staal to a long-term extension is an absolute must.
Subban reportedly agreed an eight-year, $72 million extension with the Canadiens this past weekend. The mammoth contract has raised the asking price for all top-tier defensemen around the league.
This plays right into the hands of Staal and agent Paul Krepelka. Currently, the Rangers are reportedly yet to begin negotiations with Staal and his representatives at Orr Hockey Group.
He’s set to earn $5.45 million ($3.975 million annual cap hit) in the final year of the five-year, $19.9 million contract he signed in September 2010.
At absolute minimum, Staal is worth the six-year, $33 million deal that teammate Dan Girardi signed in February to secure his future with the Rangers just days before the March 5 trade deadline. That contract kicks in this season.
A strong case can be made that he’s worth well above Girardi’s $5.5 million annual average value and deserving of a seven-year pact. Staal is three years younger than the 30-year-old Girardi. He’s a better all-around defenseman and despite his history of bad-luck injuries could be entering the most productive years of his career.
Should Staal somehow hit the open market next July, he would be the unquestioned cream of the crop among free agent defenseman. The 2015 class could potentially include Staal, Christian Ehrhoff, Paul Martin, Marc Methot and Mike Green. Staal is head and shoulders the most attractive of the bunch.
When it comes down to it, the Rangers don’t have much of a choice.
They will pay Staal mega money sooner rather than later.
RANGERS HIRE VERSATILE WILLIAMS AS ASSISTANT COACH
On Tuesday morning, the Rangers announced the hiring of assistant coach Darryl Williams. The well-traveled 46-year-old has worked in a variety of roles. Williams has experience as a strength and conditioning coach, video coordinator and associate coach.
He will reunite with Alain Vigneault in New York. Williams served as a video coach for Vancouver throughout the five seasons that Vigneault presided behind the Canucks’ bench. He spent last season working in the same capacity during John Tortorella’s turbulent lone season as Canucks head coach.
Williams joins associate coach Scott Arniel, assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson, assistant coach/goaltending coach Benoit Allaire and video coach Jerry Dineen on Vigneault’s staff ahead of the 2014-15 season. Williams replaces Dan Lacroix, who departed the Rangers to join the Canadiens as an assistant coach. The Canadiens announced Lacroix’s hire on July 30.
FLYERS SIGN EX-RANGER D-MAN DEL ZOTTO
The Philadelphia Flyers announced the signing of free-agent defenseman Michael Del Zotto on Tuesday afternoon. According to Flyers general manager Ron Hextall, the deal is a one-year contract.
“Extremely excited to join the Flyers,” Del Zotto tweeted. “Can’t wait for the preseason to start and join the orange and black.”
The signing came just hours after Hextall announced that veteran Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen is being treated in his native Finland for blood clots in his lower right leg and both lungs.
Del Zotto spent four and a half seasons with the Rangers. In 292 games with the Blueshirts, Del Zotto scored 26 goals and registered 95 assists for 121 points. His Rangers career had as many frustrating valleys as it did peaks.
The 24-year-old defenseman is an excellent skater and a talented playmaker. It makes sense that the Flyers would sign an offensively skilled defenseman considering Timonen’s uncertain status. Yet, there is a huge risk that comes with writing Del Zotto’s name in the lineup.
His mistake-prone ways are going to be a huge worry to Flyers fans. Del Zotto’s game is littered with turnovers, bad reads and poor defensive zone coverage. He is a particularly poor possession player.
Del Zotto struggled mightily after joining the Nashville Predators on January 22. Ex-Predators head coach Barry Trotz quickly grew frustrated with Del Zotto in their short time together in Nashville and began trimming the inconsistent defenseman’s minutes in mid-March before scratching him on March 19.
“His game has slipped,” Trotz told The Tennessean in March. “Our coaching staff has talked to him about making solid decisions, solid plays and he has gotten away from that a little bit. We had some healthy people and we felt this would be a good time.”
Trotz went on to healthy scratch Del Zotto in six of Nashville’s final 13 games. Del Zotto scored one goal and collected four assists in 25 games for the Preds. This was not the return the Predators were expecting after dealing away solid blue-liner Kevin Klein to the Rangers to land Del Zotto.
Philadelphia is an incredibly tough city to play in. Flyers fans have a habit of turning on their own players. It isn’t a place that’s for everyone. Del Zotto developed a thin skin when criticism came his way in New York. He’s going to have to block out the noise if he stands any chance of being a success in Philly.
Del Zotto will return to Madison Square Garden for the first time on September 29 when the Rangers and Flyers meet for a preseason clash. His regular season return to MSG will be on November 19.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
You May Also Be Interested In These Stories