I think sometimes Rangers fans forget just how special Derek Stepan is and can be. We tend to get excited about our newer toys like Chris Kreider and by our other young guys that are already bona fide stars like Ryan McDonagh. But that often means we overlook Derek Stepan, who is still just 24 years-old. Stepan has now played in four seasons with the Rangers and even though he was on pace for some star-caliber numbers in 2012-13's shortened season, he put up a career best 57 points in 82 games this past season with the Rangers. Let's take a look at Derek Stepan's year with the Rangers and put where he is now into perspective so that we might better understand what to expect out of him next season.
New York Rangers fans were expecting huge things out of Stepan after what he showed he could do in the 2012-13 season. It looked like he had emerged as a true #1 center (and some were saying a "star" center) and with Rick Nash on his wing for a full 82 game season, we were all expecting Stepan to comfortably eclipse the 60 point mark, if not the 70 point mark. However, things got off to a rocky start when Stepan, an unrestricted free agent in the 2013 offseason, held out and eventually settled for a bridge contract at the 11th hour. Stepan wanted to get paid like a star and Glen Sather made it very clear that he was going to get paid big bucks someday soon, but that day wasn't here just yet.
It created a lot of anxiety for Rangers fans. Did this mean that Stepan and Sather had a bad relationship? Were the Rangers mishandling their first homegrown center with the potential to be a star in more years than most of us could care to count? What would this holdout mean for Stepan's season and for the next time a key Rangers RFA wanted to get paid?
A Slow Start
Stepan had a couple of rough stretches early in the season where he struggled to get on the score sheet, and he didn't register a goal until he picked up a hat trick against the Carolina Hurricanes in early November. Stepan had just 7 goals in his first 48 games of the season (halfway through January). In the 48 game season of 2012-13 he had 18 goals. It was a bit unreasonable for Rangers fans to expect him to score at the torrid pace he scored at in the previous season, but there's no denying that Stepan's numbers were a bit of a disappointment in the 2013-14 regular season.
Most of us wisely credited Stepan's mediocre start to the fact that he missed training camp with his team and probably wasn't up to snuff in regards to his conditioning. He also wasn't as familiar with the new system being implemented by his new head coach, Alain Vigneault, as his teammates were. It also didn't help Stepan's numbers that Rick Nash and Chris Kreider were not regulars in the Rangers lineup due to injury (Nash) and playing in the AHL (Kreider). Stepan had an underwhelming start to the 2013-14 campaign and a lot of us were a lot more concerned about it than we would now like to admit.
Thankfully Stepan found his game towards the end of the season and was one of the Rangers' real standouts in the 2014 Playoffs. After a very strong start to the playoffs, Stepan was held to just one point (an assist) in the series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Thankfully he returned to form and scored 7 points in 5 games against the Montreal Canadiens. But that isn't what most of us remember about Stepan and the Eastern Conference Finals.
Stepan missed the first game of his professional career after a late and dirty hit by former Ranger Brandon Prust broke his jaw in the third game of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Habs. In Stepan's first game back (Game 5) he scored two goals. The guy was eating dinner through a straw (probably) and he scored two goals in his first game back in the lineup. A lot of us forget that special performance because the Rangers were routed 7-4 by the Habs, but I'll never forget being so impressed with Stepan's heart and character in that game.
Steps had 2 assists in the 5 games that the Rangers played against the Kings. He ended the 2014 Playoffs with 15 points, which was good for second on the team (tied with Martin St. Louis). All in all, he had a very solid postseason and was a big part of what was right about the power play when it was clicking. On a team that really struggled to score goals, Stepan was one of the few Rangers who regularly contributed to the team offensively. His numbers weren't gaudy or outstanding but they were very solid. Stepan scored in the games that mattered most. He was a big part of the Rangers making it to the Stanley Cup Final.
It's easy to not be entirely sure what to think of Derek Stepan's year. A slow start, a lot of debate about whether or not he's a legitimate #1 center, and a strong finish that still felt like it was less than what we saw and got out of him a year ago. Is it unfair to call this season a disappointment considering that Steps still put up 57 points (second on the team behind Mats Zuccarello)? Or are we right to have expected more from the now de facto first line center? Let me know what you guys think in the comments section.
Let's go Rangers.