Veteran Defensemen Like Him Don't Grow On Trees; Sather Needs To Get It Done

By Sean Hartnett
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At some point, Marc Staal will put pen to paper on a lucrative, long-term contract. It just remains to be seen if the Rangers will be the ones to pony up the dough.

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Could the 27-year-old defenseman be traded by the March 2 deadline? The Blueshirts know all too well how that works.

Staal is in the final season of a five-year, $19.875 million extension that he signed back in September 2010. For the Rangers to retain Staal, they will likely need to offer him a deal exceeding the six-year, $32.5 million extension that teammate Dan Girardi signed in late February.

Given the willingness of NHL general managers to overpay established defenseman, Staal has every right to ask for a contract near $6 million per year for six years or more. This past summer, the Washington Capitals signed Brooks Oprik to a five-year, $27.5 million contract. At 34, Orpik is on the downside of his career and under contract until age 38.

If Orpik can earn a $5.5 annual average value contract in free agency, then Staal could certainly command offers near $6.5 million AAV should he hit the open market.

During training camp, Staal said he wanted to avoid the prolonged negotiations that played out last season for Girardi, Henrik Lundqvist and former captain Ryan Callahan.

“Obviously you want to avoid that type of situation,” Staal said on Sept. 19. “I don’t think it’s helpful to anyone when it goes that far like that, so hopefully that won’t happen and we can find some common ground and move on.”

Since making that statement, months have passed and there hasn’t been much to report.

Last spring, Callahan’s demands paved the way to his departure from New York. General manager Glen Sather bristled at Callahan’s insistence of including a no-trade clause, and opted to ship his captain to the Tampa Bay Lightning for veteran winger Martin St. Louis.

“We were getting closer on the money,” Sather said hours after completing the trade on March 5. “When this thing got started it was eight years and an awful lot of money for Ryan Callahan or for anybody else, unless you’re a first All Star, a player that’s won Stanley Cups. The no-trade is the one thing that really bothered me in the end. It really ties your hands. I know it’s nice for the players to have security, but ‘no-trade’ is a tough deal.”

The trade proved to be a masterstroke for the Rangers. Sather landed a surefire Hall of Famer and inspirational playoff performer. St. Louis played a major role in the Rangers’ run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, scoring three game-winning goals. The 39-year-old winger has 83 points in 88 career playoff games.

Throughout his 14-year tenure as team president and GM, Sather has never been afraid to pull the trigger on an opinion-dividing trade. That was the case with the Callahan-St. Louis swap and also during the summer of 2010, when Sather sent popular Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov to Columbus to acquire goal-scoring ace Rick Nash.

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So, what does the future hold for Staal?

Lately, Staal’s game-by-game performances have been full of peaks and valleys. He looked like an elite, shutdown defenseman during Tuesday’s 5-0 victory over the rival Pittsburgh Penguins, but against the Colorado on Thursday, he made two positional mistakes that lead to Avalanche goals.

“I’m feeling better and better with every game this year,” Staal said following Thursday’s 4-3 overtime loss. “The more team success you have, the easier it is to be better individually. I’m just trying to get better.”

Additionally, this is a player who has suffered multiple concussions and was told by doctors after taking a slap-shot to the right eye in March 2013 that his vision will never return to 100 percent. Some have argued that Staal’s long-term health is concerning and that his game is trending downward. He will turn 28 in January.

The thing to remember about Staal is although he tends to blow hot and cold during the regular season, he transforms into a beast during the playoffs. In recent postseasons, Staal has been instrumental in shutting down two of the game’s foremost superstars in Sidney Crosby of the Penguins and Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals.

Throughout the 2014 Eastern Conference semifinals, Staal smothered and harassed Crosby. He was held to one goal and two assists as the Rangers eliminated the Penguins in seven games.

Smooth-skating, 6-foot-4, 207-pound defensemen with a large reach do not grow on trees. Defensemen of Staal’s caliber rarely become available on the trade market – and when they do, it will cost an arm and a leg. It’s hard to imagine how the Rangers would go about replacing Staal if he were to leave via trade or free agency. His departure would create a crater-sized hole in their lineup.

Prospect Brady Skjei’s game has shares some similarities to a young Staal. The 20-year-old is currently enrolled in his junior year at the University of Minnesota. While there is reason for Rangers fans to feel upbeat about Skjei’s future, there’s no guarantee that he is the second coming of Staal.

Like Lundqvist and St. Louis, Staal is an uncommon player whose value grows during the playoffs. The Rangers know what Staal’s all about. They understand what it will take to get a deal done. This time around, the Rangers should avoid any unnecessary drama by tying down Staal to a long-term extension months before the trade deadline.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey

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