Much has been made of what’s facing the Rangers with Derek Stepan. Having completed his fifth season as a Blueshirt, Stepan tallied 55 points (16-39-55) in 68 games and added 12 points (5-7-12) in the postseason. He earned $3.85 million in ’14-15 with a bridge deal expiring. With arbitration looming, the Rangers must get him locked up.
Since he entered the NHL as a 20-year old rookie, the 25-year old Hastings, Minnesota native has become a dependable two-way play-making pivot who plays every situation including power play and penalty kill. A former 2008 second round pick taken 51st overall, the former Badger ranks fifth from that class in scoring with 252 points (89-163-252). Steven Stamkos (498), Erik Karlsson (303), Jordan Eberle (284) and Drew Doughty (267) are ahead of him. If they redrafted, there’s no doubt he’d have gone much higher.
Despite struggling throughout his career on faceoffs (44.0 percent), Stepan’s one of the Rangers’ best players. A smart pass first center, he’s also been durable only missing 14 games which all came this past season with the first dozen due to a fractured fibula. Prior to the injury that sidelined him, he was an iron man having played in his first 294 games from ’10-11 thru ’13-14. In fact, the only game he missed was when he suffered a broken jaw on a illegal Brandon Prust hit during the 2014 Eastern Conference Final. He came back to help lead the team to a Stanley Cup Final finishing tied with Martin St. Louis with 15 points (5-10-15 in 24 GP).
Under coach Alain Vigneault, Stepan has become a team leader. An alternate captain who’s formed a deadly penalty killing combo with Rick Nash, they combined for six of the Blueshirts’ nine shorthanded goals in ’14-15. Not surprisingly, both ranked 1-2 on the team in plus/minus with Nash plus-28 while Stepan went plus-26. For his career, he’s a plus-85. Even better, Stepan stayed disciplined only totaling 22 penalty minutes. In fact, his five season total is 94 PIM. Considering that Vigneault trusts him in every situation, that’s essential. He led all Ranger skaters in ice-time with an average of 18:10 per game. Nash checked in at 17:27 with retired Martin St. Louis second (17:33).
Looking closer at Stepan in ’14-15, 40 of his 55 points came at even strength with 10 on the power play (3-7-10) and five (2-3-5) shorthanded. The 40 points at even strength is more impressive when you consider who his linemates were. Chris Kreider just completed his second full year. A strong possession player, 38 of his 46 points came at even strength with the other eight (7-1-8) on the power play. He doesn’t kill penalties. Vigneault went with a combination of J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast down the stretch. Basically, Stepan was asked to mentor two young players while Brassard got to play with Nash and Mats Zuccarello who missed the final two rounds due to a brain contusion. Brassard also doesn’t kill penalties.
Of the Rangers’ top six, only Stepan and Nash are asked to play penalty kill. That gives them more responsibility and extra shifts. Among forwards, Nash ranked 20th in average shifts per game with 25.4 while Stepan was 28th with 24.9. Fast also killed penalties but it remains to be seen if he’ll be asked to play on the top two lines. He’s more suited for a checking role on the third line with Kevin Hayes and potential Carl Hagelin replacement Emerson Etem. Miller could start on the USA Line with Stepan and Kreider.
When you factor everything in, it’s easy to see why Stepan will get a significant raise. Especially with the Ducks extending Ryan Kesler for six years, $41.5 million. That averages out to $6.875 million per year. The 30-year old second line center will earn $5 million in the final year of a deal he signed with the Canucks. He plays a different style using his bigger 6-2, 202 pound frame to protect the puck on the cycle. More physical, Kesler plays with edge and will mix it up. He also is money on faceoffs going 53.4 percent for his career. In his first season with Anaheim, he registered 20 goals and 27 assists for 47 points in 81 contests with 75 penalty minutes. He picked it up in the postseason totaling 13 points (7-6-13) and 24 PIM in three rounds.
Once his new contract starts in ’16-17, he’ll be 32. Kesler turns 31 on August 31 sharing a birthday with former Devils and Ducks Hall Of Famer Scott Niedermayer. A gritty American who’ll enter his 12th season, the former Canucks’ 2003 first round pick who was selected 23rd overall in one of the best drafts ever, Kesler has totaled 440 points (202-238-440) in 736 games. His best years came with Vancouver. In ’09-10, he posted a career high 75 points (25-50-75) with 104 PIM in a full 82 while adding 10 points (1-9-10) in the postseason. The following season, he established a career best 41 goals with 73 points and a career high plus-24 rating. That year, he was an integral part of Vigneault’s former team that went to the Stanley Cup Final. Kesler posted 19 points (7-12-19) and 47 PIM during that run. But the Canucks fell short losing to the Bruins in seven.
Those two seasons were by far his best. Since, his production has dropped. Injuries cost him 31 games of the shortened ’12-13 season. Kesler hasn’t reached 50 points since ’10-11. He’s still a good performer scoring 20-or-more the last three full seasons while putting up point totals of 49 in ’11-12, 43 in ’13-14 and 47 in ’14-15. To his credit, he made Matt Beleskey a much better player allowing him to set career highs in goals (22) and points (32) while going 8-1-9 in the playoffs. That allowed him to cash in on free agency signing with the Bruins where he’ll make an average of $3.8 million over the next five seasons. Kesler will probably play with Jakob Silfverberg and either Hagelin or Patrick Maroon. He’ll remain a key cog for the Ducks centering the second line. If they win a Cup, no one will care that his new contract takes him until he’s 37.
While it’s true Stepan and Kesler are two different style centers, notice Stepan’s production. His 252 points in 362 games is a better pace. To be fair, Kesler took time to develop. He also played as a 19-year old getting into 28 games before the lockout. If you take his five best seasons between ’07-08 thru ’11-12, he totaled 293 points. He was 27 by the conclusion which ironically began his decline.
With the Sabres overpaying Ryan O’Reilly, Stepan could get anywhere between $6.5 to $7.5 million. There’s a small contingent of Ranger fans who don’t want to see Stepan make $7 million. They cite his ‘lack of toughness.’ Toughness is a word that can be misconstrued. You don’t have to be the biggest or strongest in stature. Stepan is listed at 6-0, 196 pounds. He isn’t a big center who barrels over the opposition. However, he makes up for it with relentless checking that often leads to turnovers. How many times have we seen him force an opponent into a mistake that leads to a quality scoring chance or goal? Whether it be shorthanded or on the forecheck, he outworks the opposition.
Does he have to hit to be effective in the playoffs? Yes. He’s proven he’ll do it when necessary. He’s a high quality character who is a team guy. Perception isn’t always reality. If you want to find something to critique with the Rangers, look at their cap management. Throwing away $1.1 million on a fringe player like Viktor Stalberg a year after handing Tanner Glass three years at $1.45 million per season. They also are locked in long-term with Dan Girardi and Marc Staal who both have no-movement clauses. It would be refreshing if the organization changes their philosophy and gets Kreider to sign an extension before next summer. Bridge deals backfire because it increases the likelihood of overpayment. With Stepan two years away from unrestricted status, they’ll have to pay up.
Whatever he gets, Stepan will remain a big part of the present and future as a Blueshirt.