Before the season started I wrote a piece right here on Ranger Nation (which you can read by clicking here) arguing that for the Rangers to succeed and take full advantage of their two snipers (Nash and Gaborik) this season Derek Stepan was going to have to step up. My rationale was simple; I figured Nash and Gaborik would see a lot of time on separate lines and with Brad Richards penciled in as the #1 center one of those goal scoring wingers would have Stepan as their pivot more often than not and the youngster was going to have to play well for the Rangers offense to produce consistently.
Things have changed tremendously since I wrote that article in January: Gaborik has been traded to free up some cap space for the summer and because he flat wasn’t playing well; Richards has had a difficult season and hasn’t produced like even a 2nd line center (but he has four goals and five points in his last two games so hopefully he’s getting better); and the Rangers offense, despite the plethora of talent, ranks just 17th in goals scored in the NHL. That being said Stepan has stepped up and has been one of the best players on the team this season.
I actually wrote the following in that piece: “I like Step as a player and I think he WILL be a terrific second-line Center for the Rangers for years to come.” That was meant to be complimentary of the youngster yet I still underestimated Stepan when I said that.
Since posting just one goal and four assists through the season’s first 11 games, Step has scored 14 goals and 19 assists in the 33 games since. That’s a point-per-game pace over the last 33 contests. There are currently 18 players in the NHL this year that have played at least 30 games and averaged one point per or better. One of those 18 is Rick Nash. That’s pretty damn impressive.
Scoring is only one area where Stepan has improved. This season Stepan has won 46.5% of his faceoffs. That might not sound like it’s great and it really isn’t but it is a hell of an improvement over his first two seasons. In his rookie campaign Step won just 38.5% of the draws he took. The next year he upped that to a 44.5% success rate. This season he has improved yet again and that’s a testament to hard work and dedication to his craft. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day Step was one of the best faceoff guys in the league.
So far I’ve only discussed the traditional s tats; has Stepan also excelled in the advanced stats?
I tend to favor three advanced metrics when analyzing a player’s performance. I like Relative Corsi which contrasts the number of shots attempted on goal for and against when a player is on the ice. This suggests a player’s contributions to his team’s puck possession which is critical to team success.
QualComp breaks down the quality of competition of the opponents using weight +/- while a player is on the ice. It means more if a player posts solid numbers in the traditional stats category if he is doing it against top competition.
Finally I use GVT, an advanced stat developed by Tom Awad of Hockey Prospectus which measures a player’s value in terms of goals and accounts for offensive, defensive and shootout performance in its calculations. It’s a complicated formula and while perhaps not perfect it’s about the best all-encompassing player evaluation metric available today.
Stepan’s Rel. Corsi rating of 8.6 places him 19th overall among the 89 NHL centers who have appeared in 40 or more contests this season. It might not be elite but it’s pretty solid.
Stepan has also played against the toughest competition (0.033 QualComp) of any Ranger center on the roster. That ranks him 32nd in the NHL among those same 89 pivots.
In terms of GVT, which again attempts to gauge a player’s value in every facet of the game, Derek Stepan ranks 23rd overall in the NHL. GVT typically rewards goaltenders more than the other positions, and that makes sense. Removing goalies Stepan’s GVT of 13.8 is the 16th best in the league among skaters.
Using the 3-1-1 principle which essentially means for every three goals or three GVT, that player is worth one point above a threshold player in the standings and about $1MM in terms of the money they would have to spend to replace that player’s production on the open market. To date Stepan has meant an additional 4.6 standings points above that of an AHL call-up. It would cost the Rangers about $4.6MM to replace his production if they had to go on the open market to do it. Without Stepan the Rangers would be on the outside of the playoffs looking in. I find that exceptionally impressive.
Has his game lived up to the eye test; meaning has his play on the ice supported what the different stats, both traditional and advanced, say about his production? I have to say the answer is, unequivocally, yes. He has chipped in some big goals when the team needs them. He has performed well defensively with his line often contesting the opponent’s best players. He is almost always noticeable on the ice and makes a difference when he is out there. I’ve been impressed with what my scouting eye has seen from Derek Stepan.
I haven’t even said that Stepan is still just 22. That’s right; he won’t be 23 until this June. Hockey Prospectus has determined forwards don’t reach their peak until they are about 24. That indicates we may not have seen the best of Derek Stepan and that is a good feeling for this Rangers fan.
I’m not ashamed to admit when I am wrong. I didn’t think Stepan would grow into being a top-flight #1 NHL center. I thought he could be among one of the top #2’s in the game and felt he needed to play well for the Rangers to maximize their potential this season. The Rangers as a club have disappointed but Stepan has lived up to, no, he has exceeded my expectations this season and I am now confident that we have a true #1 center for years to come and his name is Derek Stepan. I underestimated just how good Stepan is. My bad.
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