When Derek Stepan went down with a broken fibula, my immediate response was to search for how long broken fibula's normally keep players out for. After discovering the injury usually takes 4-6 weeks to heal, I found myself feeling calm and optimistic. Those feelings immediately disappeared when I began to think about the Rangers lack of depth at center, and the idea of Derick Brassard: first line center. While I managed to talk myself into the injury not being a major detriment to the Rangers near and distant futures, there are some arguments to be made for concern.
First, the depth at center. Thomas Drance put it best in this terrific and accurate article, writing:
Derick Brassard, for example, destroyed all comers in a third-line role in 2013-14, but he's unlikely to have similar success if he's thrust into Stepan's spot.
Brassard is an above average third line center, and a potentially league average center, though he hasn't shown reason to believe in him there just yet. This was supposed to be the season where we see if handing Brassard a $5-million per year contract to be the 2nd line center was a mistake. Now we will see how he potentially handles a more advanced role.
When the Rangers failed to sign or trade for a center this off-season (though there were not many enticing options outside of Mike Ribeiro, an article for another day) they essentially gambled on Stepan staying healthy. Considering Brassard barely showed enough reason to get a guaranteed second line spot, this was a questionable decision at best.
With Brassard on the top line, Dominic Moore is likely to take over the second line spot. While Moore did excel in this spot in the playoffs, counting on an aging veteran to keep up with and distribute for the likes of Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider or Martin St. Louis is a tall task. With that, Moore's fourth line grind-it-out spot will have to go to a rookie or Matthew Lombardi, who didn't even play in the NHL last season.
The Rangers already have arguably less talent at forward due to the losses of Brian Boyle and Benoit Pouliot, as well as shakier defensive corps with Anton Stralman being swapped for Dan Boyle. The Rangers responded to their lost depth with Ryan Malone, Lee Stempniak, Lombardi and Kevin Hayes.
Considering last year's team needed to be among the best in the NHL after December to make the playoffs, there's no guarantee the Rangers make it back. Say Stepan is out the nine games he is supposed to be, there is still the issue of how long it takes to get him to get back into game shape. And don't forget about shaking up the line combinations again once Stepan does come back.
Combine this all with the improvements made by the Islanders and Devils, as well as the continued maturation of the Blue Jackets, and the Rangers could be in for a tough task to rack up the divisional wins. The Rangers cannot afford to get off to the same rough start as they did last year, so Stepan will be needed back sooner rather than later, especially with the center "depth" consisting of unproven veterans in Lombardi and Chris Mueller, and unproven prospects in J.T. Miller, Oscar Lindberg, and Hayes.
The argument here is that while no team can really prepare for an injury, most teams that consider themselves playoff contenders have strong second line centers that can step in in the top spot if necessary. The Rangers were correct in not trading the farm for Joe Thornton, or signing Dave Bolland to a mega-deal, but the question has to be asked: is losing Stepan an eye opener to a legitimate, potentially season long issue at center? Let's hope not.