Hockey is back. Wow, it feels good saying that.
The pre-season is a very interesting time in the NHL, especially for teams that have a particularly good crop of young talent. The New York Rangers, thankfully, are a team with a bunch of young budding talent just waiting to find their way to the NHL. Obviously some have better chances than others, and every year there usually seems to be a "darling" of the prospects, who rockets his way to becoming a fan favorite before stepping foot on the ice. For the Rangers this year, that player is Derek Stepan.
Stepan, who the Rangers signed to a professional contract this year, is widely considered one of the prospects who has the best chance to make the team; aside from Ryan McDonagh. And why not? Stepan lead all scorers in this year's World Junior Championship with four goals and 10 assists for 14 points. That was enough to beat out Jordan Eberle (22nd overall pick in 2008 NHL Draft), Taylor Hall (1st overall pick in 2010 NHL Draft), Nino Niederreiter (5th overall pick in 2010 NHL Draft), Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson (10th overall pick in 2009 NHL Draft) and many other top prospects around the league.
His play in the NCAA with his Wisconsin Badgers also inspired hope among Rangers fans. This year in 41 games he notched 12 goals and added 42 assists for 54 points, a blistering pace of 1.32 points per game. He's a leader, a fantastic presence in the locker room and inspired juniors and seniors while he, himself, was just a sophomore.
Join me after the jump for more.
So obviously the 20-year-old center has some very high expectations surrounding his future, but should he really be expected to make this team out of camp? For those of you who feel as though he would be rushed, just look at what the coaching staff was able to do with Michael Del Zotto last year, a 19-year-old defenseman who jumped to the NHL straight from the OHL. Del Zotto ended up playing 19 minutes a night, quarterbacking the power play from night one and ended up scoring nine goals and adding 28 assists for 37 points. He became a staple on the power play, and was one of the few bright spots on a relatively bleak season.
Am I saying that Stepan can have the same impact right away? Well, I don't know, at least not yet. That's exactly why these pre-season games are so important, starting with tonight's bout against the New Jersey Devils. A game which will feature Martin Brodeur, who got the nod from the Devils to start.
Tonight should be a pretty good litmus test for what kind of expectations we should have for Stepan this year. Especially since he will be playing on the first line between Alexander Frolov and Marian Gaborik. Now, before this goes any farther, understand that Stepan's point total is not what you should be looking at when this game is over. There is very little time for Frolov, Gaborik and Stepan to play with each other on the ice, so their chemistry might not be there yet. So while this game is important, remember that there are a few more that he will be able to play in to continue to showcase his skills.
What you should look for from him tonight is his composure. One of the biggest things that scouts rave about is Stepan's decision making on the ice. His ability to always accurately choose wether or not he is in a passing situation or a scoring situation; and of course executing once he figures it out. For those of you who didn't get an opportunity to watch the World Junior Championship, it was a beautiful thing to see. Stepan was the man with the puck on multiple odd-man rushes, and he always made the proper decision between taking it himself and shooting, or passing off to his line-mates.
I will also be curious to see how he does on face-offs, with that being one of the weaker parts of this game that still needs some polishing. It will also be nice to see him take shots against Brodeur, and play against some talent on the Devils with Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac getting the nod to play as well.
There should also be little panic if Stepan doesn't impress tonight. This will be his first true game as a professional, and there might be some growing pains as Stepan, Gaborik and Frolov try to find some chemistry on the ice. John Tortorella really likes what he has seen out of Stepan thus far, and it will be interesting to see how much, or how little, he heaps onto Stepan's plate tonight.
Anyway, enough talk, let's start the season already! By the way, there was no picture of Stepan in the database, so enjoy this one of McDonagh and some of the Badgers.