When it comes to American-born centers, Derek Stepan is one of the best in the NHL today. He is a likely lock to suit up for Team USA in future international action, but what are the chances that No. 21 will make the 2014 Winter Olympic roster?
According to Team USA general manager David Poile, Stepan has an excellent chance. The Rangers were in Nashville for a game with the Predators, and Steve Zipay of Newsday was able to speak with the architect of Team USA:
Stepan, Poile said, "has gotten better and better as the season has gone on. Missing training camp is . . . not a good thing. But his play of late has been much, much better, and he's second in scoring on the Rangers. That's what we're going to need.
"Center ice is a critical area for us. We have really good centermen, but we're not really, really deep in centers.
"So I'm trying to say it the correct way: We would like Derek to be on the team."
Poile mentioned that USA has some really good centermen, but where would Stepan fit in on the roster? Joe Pavelski and David Backes should be locks to make the roster, but after that there are two center spots up for grabs.
Ryan Kesler and Paul Stastny have Olympic experience, but both are not as talented as they were in 2010.
Stastny entered the league by posting three seasons in which he was on pace for 70 or more points, but the last three years his production has trended down. He is off to a great start this year, but he brings more to the table offensively than defensively. He probably has the best chance of the duo to make the team, but he shouldn't get priority over Stepan.
Kesler, on the other hand, has really gone down hill with the Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks' pivot scored 49 points in his last full season, and last season he only tallied 13 points in 17 games. For those reasons, it is fair to say that neither is a lock to make Team USA.
The bottom two lines of Team USA will likely emphasize two-way play, which is the reason why Stepan likely will join Team USA in Sochi.
Stepan has continually gotten better, and he deserves a spot on the roster.
Currently Stepan has 16 points in 23 games, averaging 18:32 a game as the Blueshirts' top-line center. He has improved his point totals every year since joining the NHL, last season tallying 44 points in 48 games.
He brings offense and strong defensive skill to the table, and he is one of the league's emerging two-way centers. He is also young, a solid skater and his speed will benefit him on the larger Olympic ice surface in Sochi.
Overall, there is a lot of time left before the roster is finalized for Sochi. There is a way that Stepan could still make the roster if Poile and Co. want the experience of Stastny and Kesler on the squad.
At the 2010 games, Chris Drury was carried as an extra forward, and he was utilized in numerous situations to great avail. Stepan could be carried on the roster for similar reasons, but either way he should be a lock for the roster. He has the skills, he has the body of work and he has the potential to make a big difference for Team USA this winter.