Rangers ease Marc Staal in as he returns in Winter Classic

For the second Winter Classic in a row, a Staal brother made a surprising return from injury. Marc Staal actually received less ice time than Jordan did in the 2011 Winter Classic, but the New York Rangers were still heartened to see their crucial defenseman back in action in the 2012 edition.

Andrew Gross reports that Marc Staal made the call during dinner last night after a stomach-churning week of pondering the choice. After “writing off” the possibility of coming back on Jan. 2 for quite some time, Staal began to ponder playing once concussion specialist Dr. Robert Cantu cleared him for contact a week ago.

Henrik Lundqvist said that Staal’s return “gives the whole team confidence,” even though it was clear that head coach John Tortorella was easing him back into the mix. Staal received 12:41 of ice time, which is well off his 25:44 minutes per game average from last season. Still, Staal said that he felt more comfortable as the Winter Classic went along, as you can see from this video from his post-game press conference.

Agent: Schultz likes Pittsburgh, but wants to be ‘rewarded’

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Justin Schultz took a significant pay cut to re-sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins last year.

He doesn’t begrudge the deal he signed, as the Penguins have been a big part of turning his career around.

One assumes winning a couple of Stanley Cups has been pretty fun, too.

That being said, the 26-year-old defenseman wants a raise.

“We took a one-year, discounted deal to come back from last year and build upon what he did,” Schultz’s agent, Wade Arnott, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The player took a lot of the risk. The player performed. Now the player should be rewarded.”

Schultz, a restricted free agent, had a career-high 51 points in 78 games last season. Those 51 points were the seventh most among NHL defensemen — just five fewer than this summer’s biggest UFA, Kevin Shattenkirk, managed.

Schultz then added 13 more points in the playoffs, as the Penguins managed to win it all without Kris Letang.

For the record, Schultz wants to stay in Pittsburgh. The question is whether the Pens can afford to keep him, or if they’d be better off selling high in a trade.

“We’ll probably have some more direction here this week with where we’re going with [a possible extension],” Arnott said. “But we’ve had some good discussions.”

After Stepan trade, Zibanejad negotiations become even more crucial

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For a good while, the center position in New York was largely carried by the one-two punch of Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan.

Now, the Derick & Derek show is no longer.

Stepan was shipped out during draft weekend in a blockbuster deal with Arizona. Brassard exited a year earlier in a move to Ottawa that brought Mika Zibanejad to the Blueshirts.

Zibanejad, 24, was acquired by GM Jeff Gorton in the hopes of one day becoming New York’s No. 1 center. He certainly showed he was capable this season — despite missing nearly 30 games with a broken fibula, he put together a fine offensive regular season and then surged in the playoffs, finishing with nine points in 12 games.

And now, a big negotiation sits on the horizon.

Zibanejad is a restricted free agent coming off a two-year, $5.25 million deal with a $2.625M cap hit. As we wrote earlier, Gorton is “open to anything” with regards to the extension, saying he’d be willing to go either short- or long-term.

One has to think Zibanejad has a ton of leverage. His acquisition price (Brassard) was significant, Stepan is now gone, and so too is depth center Oscar Lindberg, who was acquired by Vegas at the expansion draft. Right now, New York’s center depth consists of Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes and maybe some spot duty from J.T. Miller.

Lias Andersson, taken seventh overall at Friday’s draft, said he wants to make the Rangers this year. But there’s no guarantee he’ll even play in North America this season, as Gorton could opt to send Andersson back to the Swedish League for further development.

The free agent market isn’t especially inspiring down the middle, unless someone thinks they can land Joe Thornton, and there’s no doubt Zibanejad’s seen the paydays scored by some other good, young, top-line centers. Winnipeg gave Mark Scheifele $49 million over eight years, while Calgary gave Sean Monahan $44M over seven.

Is Zibanejad at their level? If you surveyed folks around the league, the answer would be probably no. But he could be soon and, what’s more, the Rangers may be forced to pay him as if he already is.

Sabres bring back defenseman Fedun on two-year deal

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Taylor Fedun, the Sabres depth defenseman that was set to become a UFA on Saturday, has agreed to a two-year, two-way extension, Buffalo announced on Monday.

Fedun, 29, appeared in 27 games for the Sabres last year, splitting time between the NHL and the club’s AHL affiliate in Rochester. He was a very productive player for the Amerks, scoring 23 points in 29 games.

Moving forward, most expect Fedun to continue in the same role he served this year — a guy that can provide veteran stability at the minor league level, and fill spot duty at the NHL level when injuries strike.

Ottawa extends Pyatt — two years, $2.2 million

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Tom Pyatt, the veteran forward who enjoyed some success reuniting with Guy Boucher in Ottawa last season, has re-signed with the Sens on a two-year, $2.2 million deal, per TSN.

Pyatt was a steady contributor for the Sens, scoring nine goals and 23 points while appearing in all 82 contests. He averaged over 15 minutes per night and was a vital part of the club’s penalty kill, leading all forwards in blocked shots.

He also appeared in 14 playoff games, scoring twice.

Prior to playing in Ottawa, Pyatt had skated under Boucher in Tampa Bay. They spent parts of two years together with the Lightning, before heading off to Switzerland — Pyatt with Geneve Servette, Boucher with Bern SC.

Pyatt was set to become an unrestricted free agent on Saturday, but clearly liked the fit in Ottawa. He’ll get a pay bump — up from the $800,000 he made last year — a bit more long-term security, and possibly a bigger role with the Sens moving forward.

Ottawa has already stated it will cut ties with veteran tough guy Chris Neil, and decisions are still looming on UFA forwards Viktor Stalberg, Chris Kelly and Tommy Wingels.