I’ve always been transparent about how I feel about Derek Stepan - which is to say that I’ve always had a hard time evaluating him. This has been the case back when he had a full head of hair as a rookie in 2010-2011. And it was true right up until the Rangers traded him.
Stepan was considered by many to be New York’s de facto top line center after Jeff Gorton traded Derick Brassard last offseason. And that came hand-in-hand with greater expectations for his play. The closing window of time when the Rangers would be able to trade him (before his NTC kicked in) and his $6.5 million cap hit only added more heat to the spotlight that he played under last season.
So, what exactly is a first line center? Is it simply the pivot who leads the team in average ice time and shifts per game? Because Stepan did both of those things for the Rangers. In fact, only Mats Zuccarello had a higher TOI/GP than the Coyotes newest center. But the qualifications for being a first line center go beyond ice time. It’s also question of what you do in that featured and all-important role.
Alain Vigneault had an affinity and trust of Stepan that was conspicuous to the point of being detrimental in the 2017 Playoffs. Vigneault gave Stepan center stage and put even more responsibility on him after Zibanejad broke his leg in late November. It seemed that his trust in the center never waned after that.
At even strength last season Stepan finished with the eighth-best P60 on New York; just behind Rick Nash and just ahead of Kevin Hayes. He was also second on the team in primary assists at even strength. Only Mats Zuccarello’s passes created more goals during 5-on-5 hockey.
Where did Zibanejad finish? In fifth. Thanks largely in part to eight goals and four primary assists at evens.
Stepan also led the Rangers in shots on goal last season with a career-best of 209. But his alarmingly low 8.1 shooting percentage held him back from a second consecutive 20-goal season. In his seven years in New York Stepan never accomplished that feat.
Stepan did manage to tie his career high for power play points in a season with a team-leading 18 points. He also averaged almost a minute more TOI/GP than he did in the 2015-16 season. But that still wasn’t enough to help Stepan eclipse the 60 point mark for the first time in his career.
And that, ultimately, could be what many Rangers fans remember about the American’s final season in New York.
Much of Stepan’s production last season was buoyed by his hot December and his production on the man advantage. He scored 16 points in 15 games in the last month of the year. But February was a different story: Stepan had five points in 13 games that month.
Stepan wasn’t the first top-six center on the Rangers to struggle with consistency and he won’t be the last.
Still, when Stepan was on the ice good last season things tended to happen for New York. A lot of that had to do with sharing the ice with Zuccarello and Chris Kreider, but Stepan was far from a spectator. He had the best possession numbers of his career in 2016-17.
Stepan may have been unremarkable at times, but he was trustworthy and he was capable. Unfortunately for many trustworthy and capable simply wasn’t enough for a player with a cap hit of $6.5 million. Stepan’s final regular season in New York was overshadowed by the promise that Zibanejad brought and the third line’s unbelievable production. He never felt irreplaceable.
Final Grade: B-
Stepan may have been something of a sphinx for me over the last several years, but I am certain of one thing: the Rangers are going to miss him.
The Coyotes are getting a legitimate first line center who plays a balanced two-way game and can make a difference on the power play. Stepan’s issues in New York likely stemmed from the fact that he was a very good player who was paid like a great player. In terms of performance and production he never quite lived up to his big contract, but that shouldn’t take away from what he accomplished last season and during his entire career in New York.
Data from Corsica.hockey, NHL.com and stats.hockeyanalysis.com.