The New York Rangers were dealt a huge blow when Derek Stepan broke his leg in training camp. The injury meant that it would be the second straight year in which the Blueshirts' budding No. 1 center would be unable to properly condition himself for the start of a season.
A tough round of contract negotiations led to Stepan missing the majority of last year's training camp and preseason, and he struggled mightily for the first few weeks of the 2013-14 campaign.
The 2014-15 season is a contract year for Stepan, and one that could determine his future with the Rangers. There was some reason to be concerned about what type of shape and condition "Step" would be in when he returned, and four games into his season, he looks better than ever.
The Rangers' No. 1 center has four points—one goal and three assists—in four games, and he's looked very decisive and aggressive.
During the Blueshirts' loss against the Colorado Avalanche, Stepan was in an offensive situation along with leading scorer Rick Nash. In previous years, Stepan would defer to Nash, but in this instance, he decided to rifle a shot toward Semyon Varlamov.
The puck went into the back of the net, and just like that, Stepan's decisiveness enabled him to pick up his first goal of the season. Stepan has been a decent offensive center his entire career, and last season he set a career high by recording 57 points in 82 games.
While this is solid, it could be even better if he continues to play aggressively. Many times Stepan was robbed of points by trying to make an extra pass, even though he was in a strong offensive situation.
In a limited sample size this season, he's looked more sure of himself, and if that continues, he will obliterate his career high from last year.
While Stepan's offensive prowess makes him valuable, he has a reputation for being a talented defensive center, although there has been one area of his game that has needed work. Early on in 2014-15, it appears that Stepan has taken strides to improve his play at the dot, and that bodes well for him and his future success with the Blueshirts.
Stepan is winning 50 percent of his faceoffs this season, and while that means every draw is a coin flip, it is drastically better than previous years.
Lifetime, Stepan draws below 50 percent, and his inability to win a key draw was always a weak element of his game. It didn't help Stepan that Derick Brassard—the Rangers' No. 1 center while the other Derek was sidelined—got off to a hot start at the dot, and an even better start offensively.
Brassard currently has 13 points in 16 games, and his 0.82 points per game average is 0.25 higher than his career average.
In a way, Brassard's hot start put some heat on Stepan to get off to an even better start, and ultimately that is what will help the Rangers. Competition is great for bringing out the best in people, and having the Rangers' top two centers engaged and motivated is exactly what head coach Alain Vigneault wants.
For the last few years the Rangers have had depth at the wings, defense and in goal, but they've lacked the ability to dominate down the middle. During the Stanley Cup Final, the Los Angeles Kings' center corps had their way with the Rangers, and that was too much for the Blueshirts to overcome.
Right now the Rangers have two quality young centers who are proving they can be counted on in big situations. The next step up for Stepan, no pun intended, would involve a season that sees him put up first-line numbers.
There are 66 games left in the season, and recording a point per game would result in Stepan tallying 70 points.
While that is a steep number, it isn't out of the question for him to hit 60 points. A 60-point season in a year that he missed the first 12 games with an injury would send a huge message, and it would reinforce why the Blueshirts need to lock him up for the long haul.
If Stepan can keep up his elevated level of play, general manager Glen Sather should have no problem paying him a fair wage for future years, but right now the puck is in Stepan's end. He needs to take that next step, and early on, he's shown he is ready to do exactly that.