Derek Stepan Emerging As Top-Flight Center For the New York Rangers

He’s Step-an up.

During a season where the overall offensive numbers haven’t been as high as many hoped they would be, the Rangers’ Derek Stepan is having a breakthrough campaign. The third-year center ranks second on the club in goals (10), assists (15), and points (25), trailing only linemate Rick Nash in each of those categories.

In addition, Stepan is tied with Nash for the team-lead in plus-minus rating with a +12 through 32 games.

Those numbers are even more impressive considering Stepan struggled at the beginning of the season.

“I thought Step was brutal when he first started this year,” John Tortorella said after the Blueshirts’ 5-2 victory over the Flyers. “He really struggled, but he stayed with it, worked at his game, and just concentrated.

“He’s turned into one of our top players.”

Derek Stepan Rangers
Derek Stepan has emerged as a very good center. But is he elite? (Rich Kane/Icon SMI)

The struggles to which Tortorella was referring were Stepan’s five points (one goal, and four assists) during the first 11 games of the season, and inconsistent play in his own zone. In the 22-year-old’s last 14 games, he has seven goals and nine assists.

“Each season you want to get better,” Stepan told Newsday last week. “You work hard in the offseason to try to get yourself in a situation that you can be better.”

Tortorella also knew that the Hastings, Minnesota native hadn’t reached his full potential after last season. “He was less inconsistent,” the Rangers head coach said about Stepan’s sophomore season. “He’s a young kid and still learning, but I’d like him to be more consistent.”

Stepan has done that this season, registering at least a point in 19 of the Blueshirts’ first 32 games, and in 11 of the last 14 contests.

Assuming the 2012-2013 season was a full 82 games, and Stepan’s 0.78 points per game pace through 32 games held up for a full campaign, the center would total 64 points. Not a bad follow up to the 45 and 51 points he registered in each of his first two seasons, respectively.

Although the Rangers’ second-round pick in 2008 deserves the majority of the credit for his success this year, he is quick to share the acclaim. While Stepan has played with a number of linemates this year, the center deflects the attention to two of his wingers — Nash and Carl Hagelin — for his offensive prowess this season.

“A couple of my linemates have made my job a lot easier,” Stepan explained. “I’ve said it from Day One, Carl’s speed creates space and when I (play) with Rick, he creates space.”

Even though Stepan credits his linemates for helping his game, the Rangers head coach uses him to elevate other players’ performances.

“He’s a guy that I use for all our guys that are struggling to find their games,” Tortorella revealed. “(His success) is a great lesson for veteran guys, rookies…about how he goes about his business.”

It’s a Step in the right direction.