The Derek Stepan injury sent fans on a bit of a roller coaster yesterday. First everyone wanted to know what happened, which very quickly turned into questions about how long he was going to be out. Alain Vigneault speculated these types of injuries usually take around 4-6 weeks to heal, which ended up being the exact diagnosis.
The best case scenario for the Rangers will be Stepan missing about six games. The worse case (barring a setback) is about 12 games. Overall: It's the best of a bad situation, really.
So let's take the average and say Stepan is going to be out for nine or so games; how do the Rangers replace him? My original thought was to go back to the strategy used in last year's playoffs, which was moving Dominic Moore up to the first line between Rick Nash and Chris Kreider. Once official news broke yesterday, Vigneault speculated Moore would be playing a "bigger role" with Stepan out.
This makes a lot of sense -- especially short term -- since the biggest issue the Rangers are going to have with Stepan being out is replacing his defense. Nash and Kreider should have no problem finding the back of the net between Moore (who is better offensively than some people think); and that trio didn't miss a beat in the playoffs, either.
Another problem becomes who fills in as center on the fourth line. Last year when Moore jumped up to the top line Brian Boyle was there to cover the fourth line center position. This year that role is going to have to go to either Matthew Lombardi or a kid in the system. Maybe Kevin Hayes or Oscar Lindberg. But last year that line was required to play brutal defensive minutes, so will that need to be adapted? Probably, although the first line might be able to lighten some of the load if Vigneault wants to shelter the hell out of the second line with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello for more offensive production.
Which leaves the third line. If the first preseason game is any indication J.T. Miller will have no issues filling the center role. Keep in mind it was just one preseason game and things can change. And who knows, maybe Hayes takes it from him. Either way, the Rangers do have some options there. Would Miller be a major downgrade from Brad Richards? Maybe, but a lot depends on who the Rangers put on their third line and if the preseason Miller is who we're going to get night in and night out.
I'm comfortable running with Moore, Brassard, Miller/Hayes, Lombardi/Lindberg until Stepan gets back. The Rangers are at home in eight of their first 11 games of the season, and the schedule isn't littered with difficult matchups. Will it be tough? Yes. Would every team have it rough if their first line center went down with an injury? Yes.
This ideology the Rangers should have brought in a guy like Mike Ribeiro (who signed for $1.5-million) as "backup" this summer in case something like this happens misses the point. I have a feeling Glen Sather knew Hayes was going to become available, and felt he had a shot at him (which he obviously did). Ribiero wouldn't have made much of a difference on the third line (almost all of his points have come on the power play of late) than Miller would in similar roles, to be honest. And if that move would have cost the Rangers Hayes it would have been a foolish gamble anyway.
My point is it's very easy to point fingers on what people could have done after something has happened. No team has a true backup plan for their top center to go down. Even the Pittsburgh Penguins would have trouble dealing with it, and their solution would be an internal one that they wouldn't need to plan for.
So take a deep breath and relax. The Rangers can handle six weeks without Stepan, even if it's uncomfortable. If anyone knows how to shelter some players and make something like this work is Vigneault. Give the man credit, since he was able to do it last year in the playoffs when a couple of mistakes can cost you your season.
Great teams figure these situations out. If the Rangers are the team we think they are then they should figure this out, too.