Earlier this year before the puck dropped for the start of the NHL season, fellow Ranger Nation writer Glen Miller put together a piece entitled “Derek Stepan Needs To Step Up This Season” that was about how the Rangers would need D-Step to continue to make strides as a player and cement himself as one of the best second-line centers in the league this year in order for the Rangers to continue to move forward as a franchise. Needless to say, Step certainly answered the call.
On Monday afternoon, Derek Stepan was named the third star of the month of April by the NHL, and rightfully so. Stepan put together the best season of his young career this year (18 goals, 26 assists, 44, points, a plus-25 rating and six game-winning goals), fueled by an April in which he put up eight goals and 11 assists for 19 points in 14 games. On a year when the Rangers came into the season with Marian Gaborik, Rick Nash and Brad Richards projected to primarily carry the team’s offense, Stepan came into the season as somewhat of an afterthought. Even though Stepan put up a respectable 17 goals and 34 assists for 51 points last year, it was only a six-point increase from his 45-point rookie season, and most people expected a lot more than that in his sophomore campaign. Nevertheless, Derek stepped up big time this year (pun intended) and led the Rangers in scoring, and was arguably the team’s most consistent player all season long.
The soon to be 23-year-old Stepan didn’t just have a fantastic offensive season for a second line center; he was one of the best two-way players in the entire league. Stepan finished 14th overall in the Eastern Conference in scoring and had the fifth best plus-minus rating (plus-25) in the NHL. Stepan averaged 20:55 of ice time per game this season while getting top time on the power play and developing into one of the Rangers’ best penalty killers. He also upped his faceoff percentage a full point from to 44.5 percent a year ago to 45.8 percent this year. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s at least a step in the right direction and another area in which Stepan has shown progress in this year. His plus-25 rating is, in some ways, even more impressive than guys like Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz (who are Nos. 1 and 2 on the list) when you consider the fact that the Rangers didn’t exactly have one of the best offenses in the league. To help put Step’s plus-minus rating into perspective, the second highest plus-minus rating on the Rangers was Rick Nash at plus-16, followed by Anton Stralman at plus-14. Stepan’s strong penalty killing and his ability to generate offense on just about any line he was on were the main reasons his plus-minus rating was so high and why he made his linemates better players after playing on his line.
In addition to all the talent Stepan has continued to flash this year, he’s also been a stable presence in the Rangers’ lineup ever since he entered the league. He’s skated in every game so far since his career began back in 2010 and is currently the active leader in consecutive games played for the Rangers after Dan Girardi missed a game earlier this year. If you’re going to be a top player for your team that’s relied on all year long, you’ve got to remain healthy. Stepan has certainly answered that call, and he’s never had any problems with being out of shape with his conditioning. Stepan has been a hard worker ever since the Rangers drafted him, which has no doubt helped him accelerate into a crucial part of the Rangers’ top-six group of forwards.
I don’t think there’s any question that Derek Stepan is now a crucial part of the Rangers going forward, and he certainly has developed into one of the best second line centers in the league, if not more than that. Stepan has spent much of the year centering the top line and never once dropped out of the top-six. While Brad Richards struggled to find his game for a majority of the season, Stepan grabbed the opportunity to become the team’s first-line center and ran with it. Of course, he’ll still need to prove next year that his outstanding finish to the regular season was more a sign of things to come and not a flash in the pan, but I have no doubt Stepan can be a 65-plus point player in a full NHL season moving forward. He has matured a tremendous amount so far this season, and I still think the best has yet to come from Step.
So, with all the great things that Derek Stepan has brought to the ice this year, the only question left is: will he be able to carry his hot pace into the playoffs? While Stepan has been a solid player in the regular season so far in his career, he’s recorded just one goal and eight assists for nine points and a minus-7 rating in 25 career playoff games. This series against the Washington Capitals, however, will be the first time in Step’s young career that he’s actually going to be looked at as needing to produce in order for the Rangers to go deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs. With his breakout regular season, Stepan has put himself on the map and is now going to be relied on to continue to be a big part of the offense in the postseason. In previous years, guys such as Marian Gaborik, Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Brad Richards and even Brian Boyle have shared a brunt of the responsibility of performing well in the postseason. This year, the Rangers will need Richards, Callahan, Rick Nash and Derek Stepan to all handle their own and put up points consistently.
There are really no more growing pains for Step to go through anymore now that he’s in his third year in the league. The Rangers clearly believe in D-Step as being a long-term contributor to this team, as evidenced by John Tortorella’s comments on The Michael Kay Show last week when he said the Rangers had to make a decision between sending Artem Anisimov or Stepan to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Rick Nash trade last year, and the Rangers ultimately decided on keeping Step. At the conclusion of each of the past two seasons, Torts has raved about how the playoff experience the Rangers have gained will only help their younger players in the future. That time is officially now for Derek Stepan, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to show growth once the playoffs officially begin on Thursday.
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