Rangers Analysis: Derek Stepan and the 'Sophomore Slump'

RALEIGH NC - JANUARY 29: Derek Stepan #21 of the New York Rangers participates in the Honda NHL SuperSkills competition part of 2011 NHL All-Star Weekend at the RBC Center on January 29 2011 in Raleigh North Carolina. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Derek Stepan's rookie season began with a bang, recording a hat trick against the Buffalo Sabres and instantly winning over the hearts and minds of Rangers' fans for the season.  He finished his rookie campaign with 21 goals and 45 points, tied for the 15th best rookie season in Rangers' history, and 4th best for someone 20 and younger.  To no surprise, expectations are running amok for Derek's future.  That future begins with his second season in the league, and as anyone will tell you, that season is one ripe with risk.

The 'sophomore slump' is a popular narrative.  A rookie comes in and sets the world on fire, and then can't replicate the results.  As the story goes, teams adjust to the player, players don't work hard enough to improve, etc.  What actually happens in most cases is one of two things.  A young player may get added responsibilities that he doesn't handle well (Michael Del Zotto anyone?).  Alternatively, and more commonly, the clock strikes twelve on a players' luck (I'm sorry to say, but Petr Prucha wasn't really a 23% shooter).

How at risk is Stepan to go through the sophomore slump?  We'll look at that after the jump.

The first question to ask is, how did some comparables fair in their sophomore season?  I defined a comparable as a 20 year old in the 'behindthenet' era (2007-08 through last season), who posted between 0.45 and 0.65 points per game (Step comes in at 0.55).  Let's look at the group:

Name Season Team Pos GP G A P SOG SH% TOI
Jordan Eberle   2010-11  EDM  C  69 18 25 43 158 11.4 1220
Patrik Berglund   2008-09  STL  C  76 21 26 47 143 14.7 1119
Michael Frolik   2008-09  FLA  C  79 21 24 45 158 13.3 1170
Derek Stepan   2010-11  NYR  C  82 21 24 45 166 12.7 1348
Andrew Cogliano   2007-08  EDM  C  82 18 27 45 98 18.4 1120
Sergei Kostitsyn   2007-08  MTL  LW  52 9 18 27 49 18.4 746
Jamie Benn   2009-10  DAL  LW  82 22 19 41 182 12.1 1206
James van Riemsdyk 2009-10 PHI LW
78 15
20 35 173 8.7
Martin Hanzal 2007-08 PHX C 72 8
27 35 111 7.2 1206

The group consists of some very good young players around the league, from the underrated Martin Hanzal of the Coyotes, to the talented Jordan Eberle for the Oilers.  Just based on the names involved, it seems that Stepan fits right in.  Let's look at these players 2nd seasons:

Name Season Team Pos GP G A P SOG SH% TOI Delta
Jordan Eberle    EDM  C                 
Patrik Berglund   2009-10  STL  C  71 13 13 26 129 10.1 959 -21
Michael Frolik   2009-10  FLA  C  82 21 22 43 219 9.6 1433 -2
Derek Stepan    NYR  C                 
Andrew Cogliano   2008-09  EDM  C  82 18 20 38 116 15.5 1181 -7
Sergei Kostitsyn   2008-09  MTL  LW  56 8 15 23 74 10.8 792 -4
Jamie Benn   2010-11  DAL  LW  69 22 34 56 177 12.4 1243 15
James van Riemsdyk  2010-11  PHI LW  75 21 19 40 173 12.1 1090 5
Martin Hanzal  2008-09  PHX  C  74 11 20 31 97 11.3 1210 -4

Well, that's less promising than we would like. Most of the group 'slumped' to fewer points in their second season, driven for the most part by a reduction in shooting percentage.  They also all saw a drop in their assist totals, despite increased ice time.  So based on the comparables, the surface numbers do not favor Derek Stepan repeating his rookie performance. The underneath numbers don't really shine a better picture, but they do give a little more reason for optimism.

    Corsi Rel QoC Corsi QoT G+A1/60 P/60 Team Sh% ZoneStart% Adj Corsi/60
Name Season 1st 2nd 1st 2nd 1st 2nd 1st 2nd 1st 2nd 1st 2nd 1st 2nd
Jordan Eberle   2010-11  5 of 15   4 of 15   1.43   1.79   7.91   49.3   -2.92  
Patrik Berglund   2008-09  9 of 14 9 of 14 5 of 14 6 of 14 1.60 0.86 1.83 1.25 10.74 6.55 59.8 59.7 -5.07 4.88
Michael Frolik   2008-09  7 of 14 5 of 13 6 of 14 4 of 13 1.69 0.95 1.94 1.58 9.44 7.82 43.7 45.0 1.97 -0.75
Derek Stepan   2010-11  11 of 13   3 of 13   1.56   1.84   8.80   64.1   -0.49  
Andrew Cogliano   2007-08  12 of 14 7 of 13 9 of 14 11 of 14 1.56 1.17 2.28 1.69 11.42 8.63 52.8 53.2 -15.60 -6.03
Sergei Kostitsyn   2007-08  8 of 13 7 of 15 7 of 13 2 of 15 1.46 0.83 2.04 1.34 12.26 8.49 48.1 51.5 -11.21 -12.91
Jamie Benn   2009-10  3 of 15 6 of 13 2 of 15 6 of 13 1.48 1.60 2.01 2.42 8.61 10.39 57.1 59.0 -1.46 -5.05
James van Riemsdyk 2009-10 10 of 14 6 of 14 8 of 14 2 of 14 1.31 1.56 1.72 1.88 7.16 9.54 58.8 52.6 3.12 -1.74
Martin Hanzal 2007-08 2 of 13 1 of 17 11 of 13 15 of 17 1.15 1.16 1.42 1.55 6.67 8.70 47.1 38.4 3.82 0.82


All data here is even strength, specifically 5v5, only.  The quality of player metrics here are the ranks based on the number of team forwards who registered 30+ games played.  For example, Martin Hanzal played the 2nd hardest competition for the Coyotes during his rookie year, with the 11st best teammates.   G+A1/60 is the players point totals based on only goals and primary assists.  Eric T. at Broad Street Hockey showed there is little correlation in a player's ability to record secondary assists, so G+A1/60 is a bit more reliable when looking at a player's ability from year to year.

While there is no definitive pattern with the quality of teammates among the rookies, there's a clear pattern with competition.  In their second season, each of these young rookies were asked to take harder competition, and not surprisingly, saw a decrease in their results.  The lone exception here was James Van Riemsdyk, who had the largest jump in his teammate level to help him. There was also no strong correlation with the players zone start, as most saw their deployment unchanged, or even more offensively oriented in their second season.

Perhaps the largest factor, as noted individually, was the team's shooting percentage with each player on the ice.  The group was well above the league average of 8.1%, with a couple as high as 11%.  As to be expected, the following season that number came back to earth, and those players saw a dramatic drop in their P/60.  Those who were below average, saw that number come back up, and their production increased.  That's not a surprising result, clearly the more shots that are going in, the more opportunity there is for points. 

After all that, we come back to the only thing fans will care about, what does this mean for Derek Stepan?  Well there are a couple of red flags here. He was heavily shielded in his rookie year, both in competition and defensive zone assignments (although the latter can be partially blamed on his anemic faceoff rate).  In both cases, it is likely he'll see harder situations, which will have an impact on his bottom line.  The other flag is his individual shooting percentage.  At the University of Wisconsin, Derek shot 8.8% over his two years, then jumped to 12.7 in his first year as a professional.  Yes, this could be an improvement in his game, however as we saw, these 20-goal rookie campaigns were also accompanied by high percentages, and came back down the following season. It is something to watch for, as his college shooting rate would've netted him just 15 goals, a far less exciting total than his actual 21.

On the other side of the coin, while his team shooting was above average, it was not nearly to the level as the others, and may be repeatable, which will help his keep his point totals where they are.  He also had remarkably few second assists this season (just 0.28 per 60).  This rate is actually on par with a few of the slumpers, but all of them saw much higher rates in their second season.  That could very well mean that Stepan's assists can stay stable as well.  Lastly, while not discussed here, power play time has a significant effect on results.  Aside from Martin Hanzal however, this group did not see a significant shift in their power play minutes, and thus the even strength numbers played a much larger role in their boxscore numbers.  With Brad Richards on board, this may actually hurt Stepan more than help him, but the total effect should be a relatively minimal.

All told, the odds are that Stepan takes a slight step back this year.  That drop probably won't be Berglund-esque, but if he finishes with a 15-20-35 season, it's no cause for concern.  Of course, he exceeded all expectations his rookie season, so will anyone really be surprised if he does it again?  I know I won't be.

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