Derek Stepan has always been an essential component to the New York Rangers’ offense but lately the American-born center has reached another level, with him posting 14 points over his last eight games and eight points in his last four. For whatever reason the center is skating with a jump in his step, finding his linemates with the puck, and finding the back of the net, which has been a big boost for the Rangers.
Moving the Puck
Stepan’s best assets have always been his hockey sense and his passing ability; recently he’s done a terrific job of hanging onto the puck and finding linemates. An excellent example of the centers natural instincts occurred on March 31st against the Carolina Hurricanes. As he’s moving up the ice on the power-play, he notices speedy winger Chris Kreider has a step on the defense. Rather than trying to place the puck through the zone and onto Kreider’s stick, he puts the puck all the way down the ice and allows his line-mate to skate into it for an eventual goal.
Hockey smarts are one of those traits that are hard to put into numbers, but we can see a good example of this again in Monday night’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets where Stepan and Kreider were able to combine for another goal. Number 21 gets the puck with speed finds some space and then drives wide to drop the puck back to Kreider. By Stepan making the move to the outside, he opens the lane for Kreider to head straight to the net with speed where he’s able to score.
When Stepan is off his game, these are the kinds of little things that he can’t seem to do.
Stepan has always been a good shooter (11.2% in his career), but lately, the center seems quicker to release the puck on net. On Tuesday night against the Lightning, he took a slapshot which he rarely does. Here he finds the puck and steps into a missile over Andrei Vasilevskiy’s shoulder. Usually, the center corrals the puck, or moves it to a teammate, so to see him just quickly shoot a puck off the boards speaks to his confidence.
He currently leads the team in shots on goal with 190, but this is only the second season in which the center has recorded more than 20 goals. If he continues to shoot the puck like this, there’s no reason that he can’t start to do this consistently.
While the center has been flying on offense lately, I can’t leave out how good he’s been on defense, particularly the penalty-kill. Stepan is third among Rangers’ forwards in short-handed time-on-ice per game averaging 1:44; he also leads the team in short-handed takeaways with 11. Lately, he and Rick Nash, have been playing with great instincts while short-handed, which has given some relief to a unit that’s spent most of the season on their heels when killing a penalty.
To me, Stepan is the Rangers’ most complete center. He’s good in his end, a great playmaker, and he simply has a way of scoring big goals. He doesn’t have the speed of Kreider or the size of Nash, but the center still finds a way to be a productive force. He’s had a funny year regarding consistency, but right now he seems to be playing his best hockey of the season. He’s the kind of guy that makes his teammates better, which is something the Rangers’ offense could use heading into the post-season.