Over his career, Derek Stepan has been a key contributor to the New York Rangers Hockey Club, but can he be counted on as a No. 1 Center in the future?
Derek Stepan has had quite the career as a New York Rangers center. If, for whatever reason, his time in a Blueshirt ended tomorrow, many will remember him for scoring this goal against the Washington Capitals:
Boy, that gives me chills every time, Doc announcing in his iconic yell, Stepan jumping around like a five-year-old on Christmas day, his teammates mobbing him while Braden Holtby lies motionless in his crease. It will be one of those Ranger memories that will forever be etched in my mind.
But the debate will forever rage on, “Is Derek Stepan a true No. 1 center in the NHL?”
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More of a pass first guy, Stepan possesses incredible vision; there is no denying that. Now, there’s also no denying Stepan is not an elite skater and that he doesn’t do one thing that’s out of this world good. He’s just solid in everything, though.
At 0.70 points per game in his career, no one would argue that he’s not a productive center in the NHL. Even in comparison to some of the more household names out there, he ranks pretty high. Everyone also should know that game of hockey goes well beyond the stat sheet. Little things like contributions on Special Teams, face-offs, defensive zone play and shutting down opposition’s top lines all are massive contributions to a club and all are integral parts to a Stanley Cup run.
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Whatever we all decide on at the end of this article, one thing sneaky about Derek Stepan is that he’s a winner at all levels.
In his Sophomore year of college, Stepan (and current NYR captain Ryan McDonagh) led Wisconsin to a second-place finish in the tough WCHA, second only to the Denver Pioneers. Stepan finished second in scoring in all of NCAA to Maine Standout and current Detriot Red Wing Gustav Nyquist. It was in that same year that Stepan led the World Juniors Under 20 U.S. team to a gold medal where he was team captain. Stepan posted 14 points to lead the tournament over more household names like Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle.
It wasn’t shortly after that Stepan signed his ELC and joined the Rangers in the 2010-2011 season where he posted a hat trick in his first game en route to a very solid rookie campaign at 21 goals 24 assists for 45 points. Since then, Step has maintained his current pace of around 0.70 points per game placing him among the likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Ryan Kesler, and Tyler Johnson.
First and foremost, I wouldn’t trade Step for any of these aforementioned three, although what’s interesting about those three is that they all are second line centers. Nugent-Hopkins has McDavid, Kesler has Getzlaf, and Johnson has Stamkos when healthy. Debatable if he brings more value than those three, I certainly would say he has better vision than Kesler, who’s more of a straight line hard-nosed power forward, or better in the d zone than Nugent-Hopkins who’s career plus/minus is a disaster. But all in all, is that good enough to warrant him a first line center?
So if he’s not one, who qualifies? When you look around the league at the center position, you have your superstars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Connor McDavid. Yes, they’re bona fide number one centers in the league hands down. Then you kind of slide down to tier II of the matter where guys like Toews, David Krecji, Logan Couture, Jeff Carter and Patrice Bergeron sit. Again, these guys don’t bring a boatload of points, but all of them do offer more than Stepan in many regards and that would be why I have them ranked ahead of him. Jonathan Toews is an elite skater who when he’s not producing, he still can shut down opposing teams top lines. Same for Bergeron, who has a couple Selke trophies to his name, an award given to the most defensively responsible forward in the league.
Then we get to the tier where I rank Stepan. Again some guys like Johnson, Nugent-Hopkins, and Kesler as well as some younger guys like Mikael Granlund who’s finally having the breakout season Wild fans have been waiting for. Same goes for Mark Scheifele, who both would have higher ceilings than Stepan in the long term, evidenced by both of their coming out parties.
All in all, do I believe Derek Stepan is a No. 1 center in the league? No. I think he’s a fantastic 2C that would make any team with a bonafide No. 1 an instant contender but he’s just not good enough to carry the load when duty really calls. Overall, I believe because of Stepan’s lack of elite skating ability, lack of physicality, and lack of a great release on his shot, it limits him in how effective he can be as an offensive force.
Is this a call for Derek Stepan’s head? No. I like Stepan and I think he brings a lot to the table for the club and the current situation down the middle with Zibanajed (who’s still developing) and Hayes (who’s also still developing) make the Rangers one of the best with Center depth in the league.
However, if the Rangers were to lose one of those guys and have to deploy a more conventional lineup that features less depth, then I think they would be better suited elsewhere.