Headaches continue to beset Marc Staal

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- We are listening to New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal talk about the headaches that continue to plague him as he tries to recover from a concussion sustained when blasted by brother Eric some seven months ago, and we are left with one overarching feeling: This is not good.

Never mind that Staal skated drills Tuesday after leaving the Rangers facility Monday without getting on the ice because he felt lousy.

Never mind that he reports there have been some improvements in his condition as the summer has worn on.

Instead the fact that intense workouts continue to leave the Rangers’ top defenseman with headaches, sometimes severe, sometimes lasting hours, sometimes hours after exertion, seem like nothing but bad news.

“After the season, I took a month and a couple weeks off with no headaches. I had a little ringing in the ears and stuff like that, but it started to quiet down. As soon as I started working out again that’s when I noticed something wasn’t right,” Staal told reporters at the Rangers’ training facility Tuesday afternoon.

Staal passed his physical at the start of camp and was cleared for contact. But the first couple of days at camp were difficult and Staal said he felt not great Monday so took the day off.

He did feel better Tuesday and didn’t feel any problems while talking with reporters, but the bottom line is that Staal’s symptoms have been recurring in an irregular pattern.

“As the length and the harder the workout, some days I’ll get a headache late in the day that’ll last four or five hours. Or one hour,” he said.

“I feel no symptoms if I don’t do anything. If I sit on the couch all day I don’t get any headache. If I push myself really hard, later in the day -- more often than not -- I’ll get a headache,” Staal said.

At the risk of sounding alarmist (hey, we’re the media, it’s what we do) that does not sound good.

In fact, it sounds anything but good.

Remember when Sidney Crosby had to scale back his workouts this summer when he reported a return of symptoms when he ramped up the intensity level? The news created a kind of national panic.

Now Crosby has skated hard at the start of Pittsburgh’s camp and hasn’t missed a day of drills. He hasn’t been cleared for contact and hasn’t played since early January, still, at a distance at least, he seems almost to be in a better place than Staal vis-à-vis his symptoms.

This is a Rangers team that has set the bar high for the coming season.

After being dumped in the first round of the playoffs last spring, the Rangers added the top free agent on the market in Brad Richards.

The former playoff MVP’s job is to continue the superlative production that has marked his career thus far and, along the way, act as a catalyst to get the most out of the talented but underperforming Marian Gaborik.

With Henrik Lundqvist, he of the league-leading 11 shutouts last season and a young, tough, blue line, the Rangers were looking to move from back of the playoff bus to a more comfortable seat near the front.

Yet what Staal is enduring threatens the very foundation of that plan.

Staal, newly married and the owner of a five-year contract that will pay him just a shade less than $20 million in total, is one of the cornerstones of the Rangers' plan to return to contender status.

He is not Zdeno Chara or Nicklas Lidstrom or Chris Pronger except that, in some ways, to the Rangers that’s exactly what the 24-year-old represents.

There is so much to like about the way the Rangers have entrusted the future of the blue line to the kids.

Staal and defense partner Dan Girardi are admirable mentors for guys like Ryan McDonagh, Mike Sauer, Michael Del Zotto and rookie Tim Erixon, who is hoping to crack the Ranger squad this fall.

Staal is crucial to that because everything else, job assignments, ice time, expectations, flow from him on down through the defensive lineup. If he is absent for any length of time, that plan becomes skewed, the foundation weakened.

Last season, his fourth in the league, Staal set personal bests in most offensive categories. He led the Rangers and was fourth in the NHL in average ice time per night and led all NHL defensemen with four shorthanded points.

Listening to him talk Tuesday, it’s amazing he was able to play at all after suffering the injury in late February.

“I give Marc Staal a tremendous amount of credit. He played last year. He wasn’t dead on, but he certainly felt he could help the team and he did. You watch how he played. I trust him. That’s the key is trusting the player,” head coach John Tortorella said Tuesday.

Given his evolution, there was nothing to suggest Staal would not take an even bigger step forward this year and with him the Rangers.

Until now.

“Sometimes an athlete is sore but really isn’t hurt. That’s dealing with groins and maybe a shoulder or your back or whatever it may be. You try to push them through it and make them understand that not everybody feels perfect and you still need to get out there and play. But this one here you’ve got to be cautious because it’s not tangible. It’s a very difficult injury,” Tortorella said.

“You leave it up to the player. I think I need to trust your player, and he needs to communicate with you how he’s doing that’s what we’re trying to do with Marc. We communicate with him every day and see how he’s going about his business, how he feels after, and we’re going to continue doing that,” the coach said.

Now, no one is saying Staal won’t be ready to roll when they open the regular season in Stockholm against the Los Angeles Kings. Or that he’s necessarily going to miss significant playing time. But there is absolutely no idea of knowing when Staal will take part in scrimmages or whether he’ll play in any exhibition games or, well, you get the point.

“It’s frustrating. It’s something I’ve never had before, so frustration is probably the best word for it. I’ve been improving over the last two three weeks quite a bit. Hoping it keeps going in that direction,” Staal said.

The Rangers were already trolling for a veteran defenseman -- Paul Mara’s name has come up -- but that search will no doubt intensify with Staal’s uncertain condition.

Big picture, though, Staal represents a player that in his own way is every bit as important to the Rangers and their dreams of making a Cup run as Richards or Gaborik or Lundqvist.

And even before the puck drops on the team’s first exhibition game there is a large shadow cast over the Rangers.