This is the last thing I will write about this lockout: Thank god it’s finally over.
With the season just days from beginning our New York Rangers enter as one of the prohibitive favorites to win it all. They return one of the best goalies in the world in Hank. Their defense corps boasts one of the league’s best top-four’s with Marc Staal now healthy again (and now that MDZ is locked up to a fair deal). They addressed their one significant weakness in the offseason by cashing in some of their good young depth for talented sniper Rick Nash.
A team that made it as far as the ECF and improved, at least on paper, this summer is an easy pick to be among the few clubs in the NHL with a real chance to raise the Cup come June. Yet with all of those big names in place it may well be that a 22 year-old kid with two years of NHL experience might play as big a role as anyone if the Rangers are to achieve their ultimate goal. If the Rangers want to hoist the Stanley Cup in June they’ll need Step to step up.
The Rangers have toyed with the idea of a “Super Line” consisting of Richards, Nash and Gaborik during their informal workouts this week. While that line has the potential to be the most dangerous and prolific in the NHL, it’s also likely that Torts will split up his two sniper wings in an effort to balance out the lineup. Think of it like the “all-of-your-eggs-in-one-basket” theory. Under that scenario only one of the gifted goal scorers can benefit from the precise passing prowess of star playmaking pivot Brad Richards. That means the other will skate with third-year Center Derek Stepan in all likelihood.
The postseason revealed the Rangers lacked impact offensive skill up front thus the trade for Nash. However if Stepan fails to step up his game and play with better consistency, the acquisition of Nash may not be enough to elevate the Rangers to the Promised Land.
Now before anyone rushes in to defend Step from my unfair criticism, understand that this isn’t meant to be critical of him in any way, shape or form. I like Step as a player and I think he WILL be a terrific second-line Center for the Rangers for years to come. However for the Rangers to enjoy the full benefit of having two terrific goal-scoring wingers in the lineup, Stepan may have to play a little more like a top-line Center.
So, what exactly does that mean? Well, for starters Stepan can’t afford any prolonged scoring slumps. Last season Stepan had 15 multi-game scoreless streaks including three lasting four and five stretches lasting three contests. That lack of offensive production won’t cut it if the Blue Shirts expect balanced scoring throughout the lineup and for both Gaborik and Nash to pot goals at a 40-goal full-season pace.
Scoring slumps aside, Stepan notched 17 goals and 51 points while suiting up for all 82 games last year. His point-per-game average ranked 43rd among all NHL Centers last season. With 30 teams and consequently 30 “#1 Centers,” it can be judged that Stepan produced offensively in line with that of a middle-of-the-pack second-line pivot.
Stepan will need to produce more to fully take advantage of having one of the league’s more gifted goal-scorers on his wing. He has the hockey instincts and passing ability to do just that. He found great chemistry with Gabby and Artem Anisimov at one point last season and produced some nice scoring totals during that span so we know he is capable. With two full seasons of NHL experience I expect we’ll see Step develop into one of the league’s best #2 Centers.
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