When one takes a look at Derek Stepan, they immediately point to the salary he makes. In his seventh year for the Rangers, the 26-year old center remains a consistent performer. The 26-year old center ranks fifth in scoring from the 2008 Draft class with 355 points. It’s easy to forget that he was taken with the 51st overall pick in the second round. Unlike the four players ahead of him including Lightning first overall selection Steven Stamkos, he wasn’t a first round pick.
The Hastings, Minnesota native honed his skills at the University of Wisconsin for two years before entering the NHL as a 20-year old rookie in 2010-11. He flourished under demanding coach John Tortorella. From the very start when he had a stunning NHL debut recording a hat trick in a win at Buffalo, Stepan proved he was a reliable player who could be counted on. Playing all 82 games his rookie year, he tallied 21 goals and 24 assists for 45 points. A total that ranked fourth on the team helping reach the playoffs after missing it on the final day of the previous season.
Playing in the second season of a six-year $38.5 million contract that pays him an average of $6.5 million per year, the ’16-17 season has been a challenging one for the always accountable and well spoken alternate captain. Following a strong stretch between December and the first part of January in which he totaled 22 points (8-14-22) over 21 games, he went into a big scoring slump. After recording two goals and a helper in a 7-6 home loss to Dallas on Jan. 17, he endured the longest goal drought of his career- going 23 games without one before finally ending it in a 4-1 win over the Red Wings on Mar. 12.
Through it all, Stepan remained positive. He was at his locker available to reporters. One of the team leaders, he’s spoken at length about the team’s home struggles. They haven’t won at MSG since Feb. 19 when they defeated the Caps 2-1. Coming off another Garden disappointment in a frustrating 3-2 loss to the Islanders due to a bad penalty kill, Stepan discussed at length the challenge they faced. He pointed towards winning the battle of special teams and taking a more simple approach like they do on the road. It helps explain why they enter tonight’s match at Anaheim an NHL best 27-9-1 away from home.
Even while continuing to struggle finishing, a goal in a 3-0 shutout over the Kings gave him his fifth 50-point season of his career. Stepan joins an exclusive list that includes Hall of Famers Brian Leetch and Mark Messier along with fan favorite Adam Graves. Somehow in a tough stretch that’s seen him total 13 points (2-11-13) since the All-Star break (26 games), Stepan still ranks third in team scoring with 50 points (14-36-50). Two behind J.T. Miller (52) and four behind linemate Mats Zuccarello (54).
Stepan will be the first to tell you that he has to be better from a production standpoint. He’s never stopped shooting the puck running into some bad luck hitting goalposts. The effort has been there for the smart two-way pivot who is trusted by the coaching staff to play in any situation. He leads the team in shots with 193. But his shooting percentage of 7.3 percent would be a career low.
Considering that he’s only hit 20 goals twice including last season when he put up a career high 22 despite missing 10 games, Stepan’s totals aren’t far off. His 36 assists are four off his career best set in ’13-14 during the team’s first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in 20 years. The goals are a little low but he’s never been a great finisher. With him, it’s not always about goals or assists. But rather effort. He never stops working. That’s why he is a good penalty killer who’s totaled seven shorthanded goals in his career.
There’s been some heated debate about what his future holds. Should Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton consider trading Stepan before his no-movement clause kicks in this summer? If he does, who replaces Stepan? From a leadership aspect, maybe Miller who has been instrumental in the cohesive third line centered by Kevin Hayes with leading goalscorer Michael Grabner. But Miller is best suited as a wing where he can use his size and physicality to win battles and make plays.
For as good a first half as Hayes had, he’s struggled with consistency recently. He has one assist in the past seven games. Even Miller is without a point over four. Moved off the third line to a second unit with Mika Zibanejad and Rick Nash, he fits in better with Hayes and Grabner who can take advantage of favorable match-ups.
Zibanejad has picked it up with three assists in the last two games. The ex-Senator remains a puzzle. Acquired for clutch playoff performer Derick Brassard and a second round pick which became defenseman Brendan Smith, the 23-year old right pivot has a lot of ability. It’s all about harnessing it. He hasn’t been consistent since returning from a broken leg. With 11 goals and 20 assists in 49 contests, Zibanejad will be a key to the team’s success in mid-April. He has to prove himself in the postseason. He’s restricted this summer and due to a raise.
Breaking it down, the Rangers’ most effective center has been Oscar Lindberg. A candidate who could be traded due to the expansion draft, it would hurt if they couldn’t keep him. The second-year Swede has had a strong second half. The 25-year old has centered a good fourth line. Whether it’s playing with kids Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey or currently Buchnevich and Jesper Fast, Lindberg has been a key contributor posting 12 points (6-6-12) since Feb. 7.
That includes a recent stretch prior to last night where he went 2-2-4 with a plus-four rating in three games. A Group II this summer along with Fast, it would be nice to hang onto him. Lindberg gives the Rangers four lines. He also wins face-offs. Along with Zibanejad, he’s over 50.0 percent for the season.
Back to the original topic. Subtracting Stepan would be tough. While I get the argument for it due to his cap hit and NMC, he’s not easily replaceable. Even if he’s not a number one center, he remains the Rangers’ best. Unless the plan is to shift Miller, who should get a significant raise in 2018, it’s hard to assess the team’s center depth without Stepan. A player who has good chemistry with USA buddy Chris Kreider, Zuccarello and captain Ryan McDonagh. Just in case you forgot, here’s a friendly reminder:
In Game 5 of the second round series against the Caps in the 2015 NHL Playoffs, the Rangers were up against it. They hadn’t solved Braden Holtby all night. I was lucky enough to be there with my family in our seats up top in 419. I uttered to my brother, “They need a miracle.”
Sure enough, off a rush Stepan found Kreider open for the game-tying goal with 1:41 left in regulation. It was then in overtime facing elimination, Stepan took a Fast feed and dropped the puck for McDonagh’s emotional OT winner sending the series back to Washington. After holding off the Caps late to get the series back to MSG, an epic goalie battle between Holtby and Henrik Lundqvist resulted in a great series needing sudden death to decide. It was Stepan who won it with this rebound off a face-off win:
Might I add that it was the rebound of a Dan Girardi shot? The thing about this team is they have a very likable core who have been through the wars. However, if part of that core has to go if they suffer an early elimination for a second straight Spring, so be it.
When it comes to Stepan, it’s never about effort. He is an honest player who plays both ends. What he lacks for in talent and face-off capability, he makes up for in hockey IQ. It’s why I remain iffy on whether they should move him in the off-season. It will probably depend on what happens with the team in the playoffs.
Can they go through the Canadiens and another potential Atlantic opponent to reach a fourth Conference Final with essentially the same group? That remains to be seen. Lundqvist returns tonight. He has the last few games to get ready.
If they do defy the odds and make a run, you better believe Stepan will be in the middle of it. He tends to Step up in big moments. For now, instead of killing him for what he isn’t, Ranger fans should embrace him for what he is. The team’s most consistent forward since Messier, Leetch and Graves were around in the glory days. The same for Rick Nash, who remains a constant in all three zones.
Let’s enjoy the rest of it.