As the NHL offseason continues, the New York Rangers still stare at the predicament of trying to fit restricted free agents Derek Stepan, J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast, and Emerson Etem under the salary cap. Stepan is the most important and naturally will be the most difficult to lock up. If, however, there is any trepidation on the Rangers’ part about dealing out the big bucks, they need to move past that and give the 25-year-old center the payday he deserves.
Stepan is a Number One Center
It’s something that’s beaten to death in the media, but only because it’s true. Teams cannot win in the NHL without strong play down the middle. Ryan Getzlaf, Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, Anze Kopitar (his latest regular season notwithstanding)– these are the names you hear in the conversation of “elite” centers in the NHL. There are only a few of them, otherwise that adjective would not befit them.
Stepan might not be quite at the elite level, but make no mistake about it: he is a number one center in this league. All too often when the conversation of elite centers is had, the term becomes synonymous with “number one” center. But elite centers are only the highest tier of number one centers. Stepan certainly falls into the latter, more encompassing category. Along with Derick Brassard and rising star Kevin Hayes, Stepan gives the Rangers some deceptive depth down the middle.
How does he stack up against the NHL’s other centers in terms of production? Quite well, as a matter of fact.
Among centers with at least 500 minutes played in the 2014-15 regular season, Stepan ranked ninth in the league in points per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, with an average of 2.29 (war-on-ice.com). That is a very high level of production — better in fact, than Toews (2.22), Tavares (2.20), and Steven Stamkos (2.15), among many others. Why is Stepan barely ever mentioned in the same breath with most of these other renowned centers? Perhaps it’s because he is not spectacular at any one thing — his shot and skating are good, but not great. He is a very good passer, but few would call him elite.
Despite that though, Stepan is a well-rounded player who does not have any real weaknesses either, and at the end of the day, he produces, which is what matters most. Stepan is also a very cerebral player who is rarely out of position defensively. A true two-way center, he can put up the points while not sacrificing strong play in his own end.
Detractors might point to Stepan’s poor possession stats this past season. His 5-on-5 Corsi-for percentage was a very unimpressive 46.07% (war-on-ice.com). However, with his teammate Brassard anchoring a line with leading scorer Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello, Stepan played much of the season with Martin St. Louis and Chris Kreider. St. Louis declined as the season progressed, and his inability to drive possession likely had a major impact on dragging down Stepan’s numbers. St. Louis did a post a slightly higher though still poor CF percentage of 47.56%, but he wore down as the season went on. Stepan did not play with St. Louis for the first month-plus either, missing the first 12 games of the season with a broken leg.
By comparison, Stepan’s 5-on-5 CF percentage in the previous season (2013-14) was a much more solid 53.15%. St. Louis did not join the Rangers until late in that regular season. The year before that, Stepan played at a 55.33% clip. Clearly, last season was an aberration for Stepan in terms of possession, and likely the result of other circumstances (i.e., St. Louis).
Too Valuable to Let Go
Stepan is a player who is absolutely critical to the Rangers’ success. He and Brassard are the Rangers’ 1A and 1B centers, but Stepan is perhaps even more valuable than Brassard because of his ability to play in all situations. Additionally, other teams in the Metropolitan division, such as Pittsburgh, Washington, and Columbus, have all made major offseason moves to improve their teams. The Rangers really have not, so if they somehow do not hold on to Stepan, they will have a tough time continuing to be a top contender.
Stepan, at 25 years of age, is also just about to enter his prime, and could become a consistent 60-70 point threat, if not more. As such, he is someone you keep at all costs. If that means trading other players like Kevin Klein to create more cap room, then there should be no hesitation. Recent reports have indicated that the Rangers do not want to trade Klein, but if it comes down to Klein or Stepan, the choice is a no-brainer — you keep the productive 25-year-old center 100 times out of 100.
Stepan has filed for arbitration, but the Rangers can still sign him before the situation gets to that point, as they did with Brassard and Mats Zuccarello last year. Given their cap situation, a good AAV for New York would be around $6 million, but in any pre-arbitration negotiations, Stepan would be completely justified to ask for $7 million or even slightly more per year, based on some recent contracts given out by other teams to similar — and arguably less effective — players.
The Rangers would be foolish to let $1-1.5 million a year get in the way of keeping a player with so many good years ahead of him, even with their tight salary cap predicament. Stepan is too valuable to the Rangers, and coming off a two-year bridge deal, he deserves to cash in.