The New York Rangers' Derek Stepan has had an amazing season to date, and he has emerged as the team's No. 1 center. Stepan is having his best statistical season to date in the NHL, and the former University of Wisconsin Badger has been doing a lot of things to illustrate why he is the team's true No. 1 center.
Early on in his career it would be fair to say that Stepan needed to continue proving himself, but he has more than done that this season. What is impressive about Stepan is how he has progressed as a player, and that is evident in his numbers.
Stepan has increased his points-per-game average by .27 this season, and he is averaging about 2:00 minutes more per game. Everything about Stepan has improved since he made his NHL debut, but in order to take the next step, he will need to work on faceoffs.
A perfect example of this is the difference between Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Toews.
While both are elite centers, Toews is the better two-way player, and being good on the draw helps make a center elite. Stepan has a long way to go before he enters that level of play, but it is a good reminder of why getting good at faceoffs is important. Stepan is one of the Rangers' top penalty killers and improving on the draw would also make him an even better defensive center than he is now.
While Stepan's offensive numbers are impressive, he is also a valuable forward on the defensive side of the puck. He is the team's top center on the No. 1 PK unit, and he is a player who is also used in 4-on-4 situations. In the open ice of 4-on-4 play, teams have extra room to score, but there is also more space to defend.
This season, Stepan has been an asset in this area, and while his offense suits him for the open ice, he has been able to take care of things defensively as well.
Having a talented two-way center is something the Rangers have lacked for a while, and having Stepan filling that role bodes well for the future. Things are even better when you consider that Derick Brassard can fit in as a solid No. 2 center behind Stepan in the future. While Stepan has always been a player who has impressed the Rangers, this season he has taken his game up to another level.
What has made this year so special for Stepan is not only the fact that he is he one of the Rangers' top players, but he has been one of the top centers in the entire NHL.
Stepan's numbers put him in the top 20 for scoring among centers, and he has also come through in the clutch. Stepan is 14th among all centers with 40 points, he is fifth in plus/minus with a plus- 24 rating and fourth in game-winning goals. These are pretty modest numbers for a 22-year-old, and things should go up from here based on his year-to-year increase in production.
Stepan Needs to Be Re-Signed This Offseason
While this is good news for Stepan and the Rangers, it comes with a price tag. Stepan is slated to be an RFA after this year when his entry-level contract expires. He currently is a salary-cap bargain at $875,000 a year, but that will change very soon. The Rangers will look to lock up Stepan because of the value he has for the team, and they should try and do it at an affordable rate.
A bridge deal for three years near a price of $3.0 million per season would be fair for Stepan, and it would help the Rangers stay salary-cap compliant. Considering it would be Stepan's second deal, $3.0 million is generous even though older players with comparable numbers have earned more.
Twenty-six-year-old center David Desharnais of the Montreal Canadiens is a similar player who signed a few deals after his entry-level contract. His most recent deal—a four-year, $14 million deal—came after a 60-point season in 2011-12. Career-wise, Desharnais averages 0.62 points per game and Stepan averages 0.65 points per game, but the deal is close enough to use as a quasi-comparable in negotiations.
By doing this, the Rangers would take Stepan up to the year before he hits UFA status. At this point, the Rangers would have a lot more cap space and they would have a better idea of what type of player Stepan would be like. In the next few years, Stepan could become a Marc Savard-like player who scores about 70 points a season, or he could develop into an 80-point center, similar to what Brad Richards was in his prime.
Stepan Has Learned From Brad Richards, Living Up To Comparisons
Speaking of Brad Richards, it has been beneficial for the Rangers to have him on the roster. Even though his production has dipped, the Rangers are getting value by paying Richards to help out the younger players. Richards is a mentor for young players, and he leads by example on and off the ice. While Richards got off to a bad start, he has picked up his play as of late.
Stepan has had the prime opportunity to learn from one of the best passers in the NHL who also happens to be a player with valuable championship-experience. During his time with the Rangers, Stepan has tried to learn from Richards, and he has attempted to follow in his footsteps.
In an interview with Newsday back in 2011, Stepan had this to say:
"I would be pretty honored to be able to follow in the footsteps of a player like that," Stepan said of Richards. "I'm just trying to learn from guys and the coaching staff and just do whatever it takes."
That was back in 2011, when Stepan was a No. 2 center, but John Tortorella saw something in Stepan from the minute he joined the team in 2010.
Early into the 2010-11 season, Tortorella compared Derek Stepan to a young Brad Richards, and so far that comparison has looked good. Jesse Spector, then with the New York Daily News, had these words from John Tortorella:
I don’t want to jump the gun, but I can speak on it. I remember a young Brad Richards in Tampa, before he even stepped on the ice, how he handled himself. I look at - and I’m just beginning to know Step - it’s very similar. Not rambunctious, just understands the hierarchy of a locker room. Everything about it - just very calm, and understands early on the process of becoming a pro.
Stepan's Future Is Bright
Fast-forwarding to the present, Stepan has become the Rangers' legitimate No. 1 center, and if this were a regular 82-game NHL season, Stepan would be on pace to post 73 points. Those numbers would be solid for a 22-year-old No. 1 center, and it shows that further heights can be reached in Stepan's prime. Stepan's progression has been impressive, to say the least. He has taken tremendous strides this year, and he has come a long way in a short amount of time.
As the Rangers go down the home stretch, they will need Stepan to continue his amazing play, and more importantly, they will look for him to be one of their top players in the postseason.