Newest Staal gets a bit defensive

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  • Who: Rangers at Penguins.
  • When: 7 p.m. tomorrow, Mellon Arena.
  • TV: Versus.
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Sure, he is one of them.

Absolutely.

Every bit as much as any of his brothers.

The bloodlines and birth certificate prove it.

But for all of those undeniable truths, Marc Staal is, well, different.

It's not his age because, at 20, he's sandwiched between two other siblings who play in the NHL. And it's not about size because, at 6 feet 4, 204 pounds, he's pretty much a standard-issue Staal.

But Staal, a rookie with the New York Rangers, apparently doesn't carry the chromosome that made his brothers -- Jordan of the Penguins and Eric of Carolina -- into forwards, because he has played defense since youth hockey.

"It happened when I was like 6 or 7," Staal said on a league-sponsored conference call last week. "Our team wasn't very good, so they put me on defense and I played more. I liked it. I could skate backward. Not well, but better than most of the other people, so I kind of stuck after that."

Not necessarily a bad thing because, while he wasn't drafted quite as early as his brothers -- the Hurricanes grabbed Eric with the No. 2 overall pick in 2003, and the Penguins took Jordan in the same spot three years later -- Staal showed enough promise on defense to convince New York to spend the No. 12 choice in 2005 on him.

And enough since then to claim a spot on the Rangers' blue line at an age when few defensemen are ready to contribute at this level.

Marc Staal will face Jordan for the first time in the NHL when the Rangers visit Mellon Arena at 7:08 p.m. tomorrow, but they already are well-acquainted. And not just because of all the time they've spent together on the family farm in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

They crossed paths a number of times in the Ontario Hockey League, where Jordan played for Peterborough and Marc for Sudbury. And at least once, they did it in a way that left a lasting impression.

"He hit me one time really good," Jordan Staal said. "He got the best of me."

That is pretty much the way his brother remembers it, too.

"I believe I laid him out," Marc Staal said. "Have a picture of it, too."

Tomorrow's game should provide a few more snapshots for the family album. Facing Eric has lost a bit of its novelty for Jordan now that he has done it six times in little more than a year, but going against Marc will present him not only with a new face, but a new set of challenges because of Marc's position.

"I might see him in the corners a little more," Jordan said.

Jordan Staal got his first goal of the season in the Penguins' 2-1 victory at Washington Saturday; Marc still is looking for his first NHL point.

Rangers coach Tom Renney has been careful to avoid force-feeding the league to Staal, limiting him to an average of 13 minutes, 48 seconds of ice time so far. Nonetheless, he has been sufficiently impressed by what he has seen to give Staal a variety of assignments.

"We're trying to keep his minutes to a reasonable number, at least," Renney told the New York Daily News. "But he is seeing every situation, which is part of the plan for him.

"We don't want to play the kid 22 or 24 minutes. ... But at this point in time, we want him to experience those situations. We want to make sure that we're efficient with the number of minutes he plays. And, hopefully, by the end of the day, we've begun the proper grooming of a good, young defenseman."

Could be that, if things had unfolded a bit differently when Marc Staal was being introduced to the sport, he'd be a good, young forward now. Just like Eric and Jordan and, for that matter, youngest brother Jared, who will be eligible for next June's draft.

But if he regrets missing out on the glitz and glory that sometimes comes with playing up front, Marc Staal isn't letting on.

"Everyone loves to score goals, and when I was younger, I scored goals," he said. "I don't anymore. But no, it doesn't bother me at all."

It really doesn't matter to Jordan Staal that Marc's job description isn't the same as those of his other brothers; his surname is, and that's enough to assure that both Staals will take some enduring memories out of tomorrow's game.

"He's still my brother, so it's still kind of the same deal," Jordan said. "It's still going to be a lot of fun."


Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .


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