When we hear the term "contract year" we know it means the season in question is a pivotal one for the player involved. For older players it often means proving that you still have what it takes to compete at a high level and earning your next short, lucrative deal. For younger players an expiring contract with an RFA status waiting at the end of it represents the opportunity to prove one's worth and return to the club that drafted you with a long term deal that might just be the biggest contract they will ever see. For Derek Stepan the 2014-15 regular season represented a final trial in the last year of his RFA eligibility to prove once and for all that he was worth the kind of money that other young centers have been getting from their hockey clubs since he joined the Rangers' roster in 2010-11. Stepan entered last season looking to prove that he was a star center that played a solid two-way game that deserved an AAV of $6 or $7 million with his next contract. As we all know he ended up getting that big deal this offseason, but did he earn it with his play in the regular season?
The guy makes plays.
If we learned nothing else from watching Derek Stepan play last season we learned that he remains a polarizing player for Rangers' fans. The most important season of his career to date started off with him breaking his leg in training camp which resulted in Stepan missing 12 regular season games. In an injury-shortened 68 game season Steps put up 16 goals and 39 assists for a total of 55 points which was good for third on the Rangers last season. The coaching staff's attachment to Stepan was evident by his forward-leading 18:01 TOI/G and his use in special teams play. Stepan found 10 power play points and 5 shorthanded points which made him a player that was dangerous when there was someone in the penalty box. Stepan's Bozak-like (as Dave from Blue Seat Blogs pointed out in June) production in 2014-15 in defiance of his possession numbers for a cap hit of $3.075 million was, all things considered, a damn solid season from the freshly 25 year old center.
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A hat trick against the Devils? Give him all the money. All of it.
Stepan had an unexpected handicap in 2014-15 when Martin St. Louis turned out to be a serious drag on the possession numbers of the Rangers' second line. When the Rangers' second line got involved in the offense at even strength it most frequently happened on the rush and with break out passes and it often manifested in the form of Kreider being sprung thanks to the vision of his linemates. It might have been the line's only real trick, but thankfully it was a pretty effective one. The Rangers' second line had issues with sustained pressure all season long especially when compared to the Brassard line and the Hayes line that seemed to tilt the surface of the ice from time to time. It's a shame that the Rangers were unable to clone Nash and play him on both the first and second line last season instead of Martin St. Louis because it looks like that would have done wonders for Stepan's production.
If you'd like to get deeper into the metrics behind Stepan's play and read some analysis that isn't coming from someone with an admittedly tenuous grasp on any math that goes beyond basic algebra or statistics, please read this exceptional piece from Nick Mercadante and Ryan Stimson. Seriously, just by clicking that link you'll become a little bit smarter. Now, if you click this link you'll see a bunny wearing a backpack The choice is yours, choose wisely.
Some of the worst constellations I've ever seen.
The Bald Eagle continued to struggle at face offs, finishing with a 44.1% success rate at the end of the regular season, but did manage to do a lot of the other "little things" that centers are expected to do well. The fall-off in his performance in the world of metrics is something that should be giving us all a little bit of anxiety, but his overall play last season was strong. Unlike the productive forwards on the Rangers' top line, Stepan has not and did not benefit from offensive zone start numbers like he used to. Because of his perceived balanced play he is asked to start in his own zone a great deal more frequently than either Hayes or Brassard were last season and that will and did make an impact on his production. When we take into account the bad chemistry of his linemates, a broken leg in training camp that held him out of the lineup until November 8th, and the enormous amount of pressure he was under to perform, it starts to become hard to criticize Stepan's play and production too harshly.
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I know it didn't happen in the regular season, I don't care.
I expect the poll where we see how the community grades Stepan to have a fair amount of variety in it. I'm sorely tempted to just make a poll where I ask if he gets a B-, a B, or a B+ because my gut tells me that is where most of us will put him. Thankfully, I think the vast majority of us recognize that he is indeed a talented center more than worthy of the "number one center" label.
Stepan made a big jump in his production from 2013-14, but that won't stop some of us from pointing to his rampage in the 2012-13 on the Rangers' top line and asking, "Where is that Stepan?" He's a tough guy to grade but when you watch him play you can't deny that the Rangers are a better team when he is in the lineup and on the ice with the right people. As Nick and Ryan pointed out in their exceptional research piece, there is no Ranger better at creating offense after a controlled entry into the offensive zone. Stepan's vision, intelligence, and work ethic made him a crucial part of the puzzle that made the Blueshirts a successful team last season and, in all likelihood, he will continue to do just that. Which is a good thing, because he is now officially being paid like a star center. Hopefully we'll see his numbers improve and see him make a difference for the Blueshirts.
Thank you for reading, guys. Let's go Rangers!
How would you grade Stepan's play in the regular season? How about in the postseason where he was frequently a standout if not a hero? How do you feel about his new contract now that we have all had some time to digest it? Did you click the bunny link? Did you? Hmm?
Quick Note: Nick was originally going to take Stepan but got a little bit swamped, he might still make a report card post on the Rangers' top center that will be much more worth your time but it probably won't have a link to a bunny rabbit in it.