Leave it to the man who spent years physically and mentally battling Eric Staal to explain why the New York Rangers will benefit from the addition of the power center.
“He’s a huge addition for our team,” Dan Girardi said after the Rangers completed a 2-1 win over Columbus on Feb. 29 at the Garden. The game was Staal’s debut with the Rangers, one day after GM Jeff Gorton acquired Staal from Carolina for two picks and a prospect.
“He handled himself well, made some big plays.”
Staal skated 15:43 against the Blue Jackets. He had two shot attempts, won 9 of 17 face-offs, threw a hit, had a giveaway and one takeaway. The numbers were not eye-popping, but he did show why the Rangers were pleased to add the second overall pick in the 2003 draft.
Whenever his lines—he started the game centering Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller, before being moved to left wing on a line with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello in the third period—had the puck in the offensive zone, Staal either drove to the net or went to the corner, taking two Blue Jackets with him.
For Girardi, who knows firsthand what it is like to defend Staal, the trade can only benefit the Rangers.
“It’s tough to defend a guy like that,” Girardi said. “He creates space for everybody.”
And flexibility for Alain Vigneault.
Prior to the game, Vigneault gushed about what Staal would bring to the Rangers on and off the ice.
Staal is second all-time in Carolina franchise history in goals, assists and points.
“The fact that he can play in the middle, play on the left side, has won a Cup, has won a World Championship, has won an Olympic medal, you’re talking about an elite player that’s been captain of his team, is going to bring that leadership to our group,” Vigneault said.
“Players are excited about the addition of Eric, his winning track record. This is a strong belief from our part to them that we think we’re a good team and we’re trying to do everything we can to have the best shot possible. Right now, our first objective hasn’t changed. Have to get in the playoffs. We’re working towards that. At the same time, we’re working on getting better as a team. But there’s no doubt having Eric in the room—a guy who’s won before—is a big positive for our whole group.
“I think with what’s happened in the league—Chicago, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera—I think it was important to send a message to our group that we believe in them and that we have faith in them. I think that’s the message management and the coaching staff has sent.”
In essence, the Rangers (37-20-6 overall, and second in the Metropolitan Division) view themselves as Cup contenders and their hope is Staal—the older brother of Rangers defenseman Marc—is the final piece of the puzzle.
His focus is being able to contribute to the Rangers’ Cup quest.
“A ton of emotion from the moment the trade happened, but it’s been positive,” Staal said after the game. “It’s been a lot of fun coming here and joining this group. It’s a great group of guys that made me feel real welcome right off the bat. It feels real nice to get the win; that’s what we’re focused on here as a group.
“There’s definitely a lot going through my head, not only just personally but system wise. I’ve got to gain [Vigneault’s] trust in my abilities. What I can do for him and how I can help this group, so there’s a lot of areas that I’ll continue to get better at and more comfortable. But It’s a starting point and we continue to look forward to.”
You can follow NHL writer Denis P. Gorman on Twitter at @DenisGorman.