Disappearing Act: The Comeback Story Of Paul Ranger

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The curious case of Paul Ranger is one of the most peculiar of this decade. A serious up-and-coming defenseman with great offensive touch just vanishes from the game entirely.

Ranger was drafted in 2002 and made his NHL debut in the 2005-06 season with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He seemed to get better in each season, as his offensive production began to climb. In his third year, he scored ten goals and totaled 31 points in 76 games. However, it was the next season when his contribution took a rapid decline.

He finished the the 2009 season, playing in just 42 games. His career came to a halt in the following year when he appeared in only eight games before taking a personal leave from the game entirely.

In October of that year, he was given personal leave from the Lightning and refused interviews. Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman also declined to shed light on Ranger’s future in Tampa Bay.

Then he vanished; eerily without a trace.

In March of 2012, reports surfaced out of Tampa Bay that Ranger was coaching Whitby, Ontario’s AAA bantam-league team. And now he’s signed with the Toronto Marlies. So why did he mysteriously leave pro hockey for three years?

Sure, injuries played a key role. He needed surgery on a separated shoulder twice in his final two stints, but he officially left due to “personal reasons” just eight games into the 2009-10 season.

Of course fans were quick to suspect depression, possible drug issues and rehabilitation over the three-year period. Some reports also indicated that he attended school during the stretch. Perhaps quite simply, he felt his injury problem, along with his personal reasons, were enough to convince him to leave pro hockey indefinitely.

On July 1, 2012, Ranger became an un-restricted free agent and decided to sign with the Toronto Marlies. One can only speculate this comeback to be a combination of the rekindling of his love for hockey and returning close to home. He reportedly coached his hometown bantam team to a championship last year.

Since starting with the Marlies, he’s received nothing but warm welcomes from the blue and white. Brian Burke praised the 28-year-old defenseman for his impressive return to professional hockey.

“(Paul Ranger) has been terrific,” then GM Brian Burke said in a press conference. “He’s a known quantity to us. He left hockey for a while. This is a guy who played well at the NHL level, should be a dominant player down here and has been. He’s a really steady veteran presence in the room, too.”

These aren’t just words to pump the tires of the puck-mover either, his statistics are once again in top-form.

Ranger leads the team in plus-minus with a plus-17 rating and is fifth on the team in scoring with six goals and 20 points in 31 games.   He also has a short-handed goal to go along with three power play tallies.

His extraordinary return has evidently silenced his critics who questioned his motivation level entering training camp. The next question is his motivation to return to the NHL?

One thing is for sure, if Ranger ever wants to open up about his mysterious hiatus from the game, he’s come to the right place. I doubt this to be a likely scenario during his playing career, but it would certainly be intriguing material after he officially hangs up the skates.

The Leafs training camp appears to already be clouded with questions. The biggest of which being junior-star defenseman Morgan Rielly and whether he’ll crack the roster without any professional experience. What are the odds both of them make the cut? Well with Jake Gardiner an apparent lock and Jean-Michael Liles under contract, the likelihood of two more puck-moving defenseman making the team is not probable.

Add the likes of Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Mike Komisarek and Cody Franson with the young up-starts Michael Kostka and Mark Fraser, and there appears to be an improbable log-jam at the position.  However, injuries have opened doors of opportunity in the past – all to often in Toronto – so Ranger could yet see an NHL return, wearing the blue and white.

What does the ball of fortune hold for Ranger in Toronto?

He’s clearly not lost a step over his time off, so his opportunity will come. Whether that opportunity will come with the Leafs or not remains to be seen. Given his ties to the area that seemed to have landed him with the Marlies, one can only assume that if an NHL comeback is to occur that it will be with the Leafs. If the opportunity doesn’t come in Toronto in the near future, he may very well be content to stay with the Marlies and eventually retire, given his lack of interest to stay in the sunny south.

Perhaps his comeback will come full circle in the most unlikely of scenarios; just as it came to a screeching halt three years ago.

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Tags: Brian Burke NHL Paul Ranger Tampa Bay Lightning Toronto Maple Leafs

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