Derek Stepan vs. John Tavares: Is It Closer Than We Think?

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Derek Stepan vs. John Tavares: Is It Closer Than We Think?
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John Tavares and Derek Stepan

The 2013 season, although littered with disappointment for the New York Rangers, proved successful for a handful of players. Among them was Derek Stepan, who, in the spirit of his own personal tradition, continued his steady progression of offensive production.

As a rookie, he impressed not only with a hat trick in his first NHL game, but with a pleasant 21 goals and 45 points in 82 games. His sophomore campaign proved to be even better, as he went on to register a solid 51 points, again in all 82 contests.

But it was last season when Stepan put not only the Rangers on alert, but the entire league. Forty-four points in the shortened season’s 48 matches was not only good for 21st in the league, but also for 11th among centers only.

His near point-per-game pace not only carried the Rangers at times, but proved he has the offensive talent to be a legitimate first-line center in the best league in the world.

But offense isn't all Stepan brings to the table. If anything, he’s known for his superb two-way play. Positionally, he’s outstanding and his forechecking ferocity and quick stick make him a nightmare for any defenseman on any given night. Although he’s not a defenseman, it’s solid play from forwards like Stepan that have helped the Rangers finish in the top-five in terms of goals-against the last three seasons.

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But, truth is, Stepan’s greatest defensive contribution comes when the Blueshirts are down a man. True, he’s not the best faceoff guy, but his aforementioned positioning and stick work, as well as his willingness to sacrifice his own body, made him former coach John Tortorella’s go-to penalty-killing centerman.

Stepan has become a solid and complete centerman. But even after his impressive 2013 campaign, he probably hasn't received the praise he deserves. And the reason for that may be because he’s been overshadowed by a nearby rival: John Tavares.

Tavares, who is actually younger (22) than Stepan (23), has played one more pro season. The first-overall selection in the 2009 entry draft was branded a phenom, and thus made the jump to the NHL directly from junior hockey. And, luckily for the New York Islanders, Tavares hasn't disappointed.

Though he registered 54 points in his rookie season, Tavares was beat out by Buffalo Sabres’ defenseman Tyler Myers for the league’s top rookie honors. Hungry to improve, JT put up 67 points in 2010-11—his sophomore campaign—in just 79 games. Considerable improvement for the youngster, but it wasn't until 2011-12 that Tavares hushed his harsher critics, when he potted 81 points in 82 games. He was the man the Islanders were waiting to build their team around for years.

And it all seemed to come full circle in 2013. Tavares helped lead his Isles to their first playoff berth since 2006-07 by contributing 47 points in 48 games. His performance even earned him a Hart Trophy nomination for league MVP.

Impressive, no doubt. Tavares has proven year in and year out he possesses immense offensive talent. And although he may never reach the freak-status that Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos have in terms of offensive ability, he’s a player any organization would love to build their team around.

But there are areas where Tavares falls short of the mark, like, for example, penalty killing. Tavares just doesn't do it. He averaged eight seconds of penalty-killing time per game last season. The Islanders PK unit was ranked just 21st in the league, and the fact that Tavares’ coach Jack Capuano was still hesitant to use him tells us exactly where he thinks his star first-line center is at defensively.

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And his plus/minus statistics further the notion that he needs work in his own end. -15, -16, -6 and -2 have been Tavares’ year-by-year plus/minus numbers since he broke into the league. Have the Islanders been the greatest of teams the past five years? No, they haven’t, but still, one would expect a player who has put up the offensive numbers Tavares has to have an even or plus rating. So what if a player could put up solid offensive numbers? If he’s out there for more goals-against than he’s actually producing, does it really matter?

And that’s what brings me back to Stepan. Is Stepan as talented offensively as Tavares? Absolutely not. Stepan may never put up 80 points in a single season; something Tavares has already done. But Stepan is a much more responsible player. His ability to play in all three zones is what makes him so valuable. His year-by-year plus/minus numbers are as follows: +8, +14, +25. That’s a career +47 compared to Tavares’ -39.

In terms of penalty-killing, Stepan last season averaged 2:03 of short-handed time per game. As stated earlier, Step plays a big role on the Rangers’ PK unit, something that cannot be said for Tavares with the Islanders. Penalty-killing, as of now, is not even a component of JT’s game.

Offense is, though. But it seems as if it’s the only thing he can bring to the table. His talent helped the Islanders reach the playoffs last year, albeit as an eight seed. The hockey writers felt his efforts were good enough for Hart Trophy consideration.

But I, for one, don’t see it. In truth, if it wasn't for the offensive production of players like Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey during the last month of the season, the Isles wouldn't have even made the playoffs. Essentially, Tavares’ efforts wouldn't have been enough had Okposo and Bailey not stepped up. Would Tavares have been nominated had the Islanders not made the playoffs? Just ask Sergei Bobrovsky, he’s got your answer.

A player—a complete one at that—such as Jonathan Toews was much more deserving. And, although I’m not suggesting by any means he should have been nominated, the truth is Stepan had just three less points than Tavares last season. Just three. And Stepan had more to bring to the table, for example, boring things: defense and the like.

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But it’s those things that make Stepan the more complete player. He may not have the reputation, marketability and offensive talent Tavares does, but his game as a whole is superior.

Tavares may be the more attractive choice, if teams had to choose. But it’s not that simple. It’s like comparing Malkin to Pavel Datsyuk. Just because Malkin scores more points doesn't mean, necessarily, that he’s the more complete player. In my eyes, a top-line centerman should do it all, and as the facts show, only one of these players can be described as complete.  

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