It seemed obvious that Derek Stepan was destined for greatness in the NHL after his performances during the 2010 IIHF World Under-20 Championships. Stepan was named captain for the United States and led tournament scoring with 4 goals and 10 assists in 7 appearances for the Americans. His stellar play capitulated the United States into the final where they captured the gold medal over the favored Canadians in Saskatoon.
Many highly-touted NHL rookies of a similar age as Stepan usually need seasoning in the minors, but the Minnesota native made a huge impression during the New York Rangers' 2010 summer development camp. He continued to fire throughout the Rangers' preseason, earning a place on head coach John Tortorella's opening night roster.
The Rangers' bench boss clearly knew what Stepan was capable of long before he penciled the 20-year-old's name into the lineup before their season opener in Buffalo. When asked by reporters if Stepan would be nervous by the occasion, Tortorella responded, "I don’t think that’s going to be a problem, because I think he embraces all of his challenges and looks at it as an opportunity. I think he’ll be a good player for us (Saturday) night.”
Tortorella knew all along that he had an ace up his sleeve. Most head coaches are wary to place any extra pressure on an untested rookie but Stepan is a rare breed who not only possesses the physical tools to be a future star but the maturity to handle high expectations, something that required especially in the bright lights of New York.
In his debut against the Buffalo Sabres, Stepan's deflected effort gave the Blueshirts the lead halfway through the first period. Already he found his first career NHL goal but rookie sensation was far from finished.
With his family in attendance at HSBC Arena, Stepan proceeded to put on a show for all in attendance. In the second period, he grabbed two goals to complete a historic hat-trick. If beating the 2010 Vezina Trophy winning Ryan Miller three times wasn't impressive enough, Stepan became the first in Rangers history to score a hat-trick in his debut.
Teammate Brandon Dubinsky lavished praise upon Stepan postgame. “He’s such a great talent and it was just awesome what he did tonight," Dubinsky said. "He’s a big part of the team and he’s really going to help us this year. The best thing about him is that he is confident, but he stays with that even keel.”
That even-keel mentality is exactly what makes him a rarity amongst rookies. You can easily point to a long list of star players who made the jump to the NHL and struggled without the luxury of developing in the minor leagues.
Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos are just two names that come to mind as each faced initial hardship in their debutant seasons. Both lined up opposite Stepan in the face-off circle during Thursday's clash at Madison Square Garden and saw firsthand that the kid is something special.
Stepan had scored in each of his team's previous encounters against the Phoenix Coyotes and Philadelphia Flyers. Against the Tampa Bay Lightning, he produced a moment of awe when he deked Dan Ellis and somehow put the puck in the back of net from an impossible angle.
Though the game would eventually go to an 11-round shootout, it was Stepan's goal that would be most heavily ingrained into the memories of attending Garden fans.
It brought his goal-scoring tally to up to 10 as he collected his 20th point of the season. The Rangers rookie looks set to continue his hot form when his team welcomes the New York Islanders on Monday when they return from their holiday break. All eyes will be focused on Stepan who might be starting his path towards becoming the next icon of New York sports landscape.