For years now, we’ve heard Derek Stepan tell reporters over the summer and during training camp that he is looking to get bigger, stronger, and faster. In all reality, that’s probably every player’s goal too, as that trifecta of characteristics often leads to on-ice success.
For Stepan though, his need for development in those broad, “umbrella” categories was what was seemingly holding him back from becoming an elite number one center in the NHL, and the top-gun at the position for the New York Rangers.
Of course this year has seen a bit of a monkey wrench in the plan, as the current line combinations manufactured by Alain Vigneault has Derrick Brassard – who last summer inked a long-term deal with New York – centering the first line. But even so, with the configuration of this Blueshirts team, Stepan could at any moment “step-an” up into that top slot, and with his play of late, he may be ready for it.
I mean, just look at this gorgeous feed to Carl Hagelin for the OT winner over Ottawa last week:
Although it isn’t exactly the halfway mark of the season, the All-Star break seems like a fitting time to assess players and teams. A couple days ago we looked at where the Rangers currently stand as a whole. Now let’s take a gander at Stepan.
Playing in his fifth NHL season, it appears that Stepan may have turned a corner, and he just might be growing into the big-time player the Rangers hoped he would eventually become.
In his rookie season with the Rangers in 2010-11, Stepan had a very successful year in which he lit the lamp an impressive 21 times, and finished the season with 45 points. It doesn’t matter how you slice it, it was a pretty successful rookie campaign.
In the three years since, the now 24-year-old has yet to again eclipse the 20 goal plateau (in his defense, 2013 is tough to judge due to the lockout), but did tally a career high in points in last season, when he registered a total of 57 (17-40-57) in 82 games.
Still, his goal to get bigger, stronger, and faster remained. He was not yet the top-line center the Rangers were in need of.
That was, until recently.
This season, for the first time in his career, Stepan is producing at over a point-per-game clip. Although he is not currently on pace to amass 80 or more points thanks to an injury he sustained during training camp which kept him sidelined for the first month of the season, the Ranger center is still on par to post over 60 points, which even with the time that he missed would be a career high.
Stepan is also playing valuable minutes in all areas of the game, be it on the power play, penalty kill, or even strength; he ranks second on the Rangers in power play time on ice, and fourth amongst the teams forwards in shorthanded time on ice. Again, this is with having missed the first month of the season.
All of that together, then, would suggest that Stepan is indeed blossoming into the top-line center that he’s likely capable of becoming.
Since the end of last season’s Olympic break, #Rangers Derek Stepan has 53 points (15 goals, 38 assists) in 53 regular season games.
— Seth Rothman (@RothmanHockey) January 20, 2015
But then we look at faceoffs…
Now, some diehards of the advanced stats movement may say that faceoffs are not as important as many may think. I’m just going to respectfully disagree.
If you win an offensive zone draw, more than likely you will then gain full possession of the puck in the attacking zone. That, is unequivocally a good thing.
If one wins a faceoff in their own defensive zone, it prevents the opposition from possessing the puck while on the offensive, and allows the defending team to not have to play on their heels. Again, winning the draw is…
Wait for it…
A good thing!
When you think of big name centers throughout the league, guys like Toews, Giroux, Tavares, Getzlaf, and Kopitar come to mind, and one thing that all of these men have in common is that they are very good in the faceoff circles. While each of these centers have different styles and skill sets, the bond which links them all together is the fact that they’ve all won over 50 percent of faceoffs that they’ve taken this season.
And then look at Stepan. Of the 560 draws he’s taken this season, only 43.2 percent of the time has he emerged victorious.
Say what you will about centers, faceoffs and all that jazz, but that number has to be better in order to be considered an elite top-line center.
Now yes, even though I was skeptical for a long while, in the end I still do believe Stepan has what it takes to be a solid, consistent top-line centerman in the National Hockey League.
He’s a tremendously smart hockey player who sees the ice incredibly well, he’s a responsible two way forward, and he’s starting to produce the way one in his position should be expected to. However, the one lagging part of his game is still undeniably faceoffs.
Over the past four-plus seasons, the former Wisconsin Badger has gotten bigger, stronger and faster. He’s producing points, playing on the power play, and killing penalties. He just about does it all.
Is he a true number one center though? If you ask me, not quite. However, he is pretty darn close, and in my humble opinion will be sooner than later.
That, unsurprisingly, will most certainly command a hefty, lengthy new contract come summer 2015 when his current one is set to expire. That will in turn only complicate the tangled web that is surely to become Mr. Glen Sather’s offseason.
For now though, the Rangers shall continue to reap the benefits of their developing young star.
Jake Gittler is now in his second season as a contributing member of The Hockey Writers. After spending the 2014-15 season working in Communications for Adirondack Flames of the AHL and covering the New York Rangers here for The Hockey Writers, Jake’s coverage has been switched over to the Colorado Avalanche for the 2015-16 season. Jake can be reached via email at Jakegittler@gmail.com, or on Twitter @Jgittler_hockey.