A persistent rumor during the long-drawn-out Rick Nash Saga, as I call it, was that one reason the deal that brought the winger to the Rangers took so long to get done was Columbus GM Scott Howson’s repeated insistence upon soon-to-be 3rd-year center Derek Stepan being included in it, and Rangers’ GM Glen Sather’s staunch refusal to comply with this demand. Of course, the deal is now done and Stepan remains a Blueshirt, but this (alleged) stalemate sparked a fair amount of discussion among Ranger fans as to his value to the team and, ultimately, his overall potential.
Coach John Tortorella has said that Stepan, who turned 22 in June, reminds him of a young Brad Richards; pretty high praise from a tough coach. And one need only watch Stepan on the ice to see that despite being one of the youngest players on the roster, his basic hockey IQ is perhaps among the highest on the team.
The Minnesota native, you may remember, hit the NHL in 2010 with a bang, netting a hat trick in his first NHL game – the first Ranger and only the 4th player in NHL history to do so – and while he set the bar high for himself in so doing, he followed through, finishing his rookie season with an impressive 21 goals and 45 points in a full 82 games.
In his sophomore campaign in 2011-2012, Stepan netted 17 goals and 52 points, and the fact that his assist total increased while his goal total decreased may be seen as an indicator that he is developing into a true NHL centerman: a player whose role revolves more around setting up goals than burying them himself. The interesting thing about Stepan is that he seems, at first glance, rather unremarkable. He is not especially flashy, not particularly big (6’0″, 190) or strong, nor is he a speed demon like fellow young Rangers Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider. It is his aforementioned intelligence, combined with a maturity, patience and calmness that belie his young age, that make Stepan special.
However, all that being said: more is needed from him, especially now, considering the faith the Rangers’ organization showed in his potential by refusing to include him in the Nash deal. Late in the 2011-2012 season, Stepan received a knee-on-knee hit from Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik, and although he did not miss any games, he was not nearly so visible throughout the remainder of the season and playoffs as most fans would have hoped. Was he playing injured after the Orpik hit? Possibly, and while willingness to play through injury is admirable, seeing a player on the ice when he is not giving 100% – even if only because he cannot – can be frustrating. Either way, Stepan needs a true breakout season; if he is capable of being a game-changer in the NHL, now is the time for him to show it. Will he ever be a 35-goal guy? It seems doubtful; again, he seems to be more of a playmaker than goalscorer, although in this writer’s opinion, 25-30 goals and a secure spot on the 2nd line would not be outside the realm of possibility for a player of his skill level. But “potential” can be a dirty word, and all potential must evolve into results eventually or it is meaningless. So if Stepan is going to validate the faith shown in him by Sather, Tortorella, and the large number of fans who were vocal in wanting him to remain on Broadway, he needs a banner year in 2012-2013.
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