Ranger prospect Derek Stepan was undoubtedly one of the best players during last week's Traverse City Tournament up in Michigan. He knows it, his teammates know it and head coach John Tortorella knows it. With this, Stepan enters training camp with a considerable amount of self-confidence that he looks to show out on the ice. Through day one, he was mistake free, so he is off to a good start. The coaching staff is pulling for him, as are the fans. Now it is time for Derek to step up to the plate and prove he belongs in the National Hockey League.
This past June 20-year-old Stepan signed a three year entry level contract with the New York Rangers worth $875,00 per year. This was after he concluded his final year with the Wisconsin Badgers, where he had a strong season last year (33 pts in 40 games) to close out his NCAA career. Drafted by the Rangers in the second round of the 2008 Entry Draft, Stepan has matured rapidly and his list of accomplishments goes on and on. I think the highlight of his resume to this point may be Captaining Team USA to the Gold earlier this year in the World Junior tournament in Canada.
In addition to his leadership abilities, Stepan possesses skill in all areas of the game. He has a knack for the net, great vision for making plays and is also stellar on the defensive side of the puck. Scouts say the fact that Derek realizes the little things in hockey make the difference set him apart from most players his age. He is beyond his years, I guess you could say, in terms of his mentality and understanding of the game. That will obviously play a big part if he happens to make the team.
When talking with beat writer Andrew Gross Friday at day one of training camp, Stepan stated that he believes he is ready for the NHL. Although he will not admit it now, I truly believe coach Tortorella would agree with that statement. Just think about it: which name have you heard the most out of Tortorella's mouth when talking about prospects? Stepan's name, and even more frequently than Ryan McDonagh's, a player who basically has a spot on the roster with his name on it.
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Two things come into play when it comes time to decide whether or not he should be on the team or not. I have a strong feeling he proves to us he is NHL ready in pre-season so let's just assume that part of it is true right off the bat. He will then have to battle against other players for a spot, but Assistant GM Jim Schoenfeld stated earlier this week that if it comes down to choosing between a veteran or a youngster, the youngster will be favored (in most cases). The Blueshirts are jammed pack at the center position, so it will be very difficult for the Minnesota native to squeeze his way in, although if he beats others out, you never know.
At the same time, though, Torts has made it clear he is not going to disrupt the development of a young player by bringing him up to the NHL, but only allowing him to play five to eight minutes per game in a third or fourth line role. That is unfair because that same player could be down in the American Hockey League playing half the game and gaining experience three times faster. This makes the situation extremely complicated and leaves Torts with a very difficult decision.
But Stepan cannot dwell on these details. All he has to worry about is going out there and playing his game, because that is exactly what got him this far in the first place. And if he doesn't make the cut this year, it is almost guaranteed he will next year.