Derek Stepan Is Anything But A Problem

One of the annual rites of passage as the Rangers head into the offseason each spring is to search for a scapegoat to pin the team’s shortcomings on. Whether it’s a star player like Jaromir Jagr, Henrik Lundqvist, or Rick Nash, or bit players like Tanner Glass and Nick Holden, the list of players who have been maligned for disappearing in the playoffs is a lengthy one. This year, Derek Stepan has earned the honor of being the root of all of New York’s problems after a disappointing twelve games to conclude the season. While his post-season performance left a lot to be desired, (two goals and four assists, one of which was an empty netter) the calls for Jeff Gorton to move on from his team’s best center are misguided at best, and ludicrous at worst.

While there have been small rumblings among certain portions of the fan base against Stepan ever since he signed his most recent contract extension, the voices pleading for him to be moved have only gotten louder since the Rangers set out for the golf course until September. With his a looming no-movement clause that will kick in on July 1st and a hefty salary cap charge of $6.5 Million until the end of the 20-21 season, there are plenty of valid reasons to explore a trade for the soon-to-be 27 year old center. However, those reasons aren’t the ones that are usually cited by those demanding the team’s #1 center be shipped out for pennies on the dollar, or exposed in the upcoming expansion draft.

A cursory glance at any meaningful statistic in hockey, along with some knowledge of teams around the league, can debunk any claim that Stepan is a second or even third line center. To begin with, Stepan’s 1.91 Points/60 at 5-on-5 over the last two seasons is tied for 56th overall among qualifying forwards (1000+ Minutes of TOI) and tied for 19th among centers.

That puts him ahead of a handful of “true” #1 centers such as Joe Thornton, Anze Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron, and Jonathan Toews. Although points aren’t everything, they are a huge part of what will make or break an offensive player, and Stepan excels at putting up points consistently. Despite not being the flashiest skater on the ice, Stepan has proven himself as a reliable point producer for New York, with the talent to flash for pretty plays every once in awhile as well.

As if his excellent point production wasn’t enough, Stepan has managed to improve one of the weak points in his game since signing his contract extension. Prior to 2015, there had been legitimate concerns about how Stepan would maintain his point production in spite of sub-par possession numbers. Fortunately, those concern have faded, as the Minnesota-born center has been among the top three Rangers’ forwards in relative Corsi For% (+2.78), Goals For% (+5.66), and Expected Goals% (+3.54) since then. While those numbers are good in comparison to his teammates, they only look better after taking a look around the league to see how Stepan stacks up relative to his peers.

While some of the aforementioned centers grade out better than him in various possession metrics, there are a number of elite centers that Stepan consistently drives play better than. Players like Ryan Getzlaf, John Tavares, and Jack Eichel (I know I said elite centers, but he has the reputation of one, so bear with me here) all fail to drive play at the level Derek Stepan has been able to since signing his contract extension, and that’s an element that cannot be overlooked. Now, just because Stepan does one thing or the other better than those players doesn’t mean he is better than all them, because he isn’t. However, the fact that he is even comparable to those players in various ways proves that he isn’t out of place in the discussion of elite centers around the league.

So if there’s a mountain of evidence suggesting that Stepan is in fact a passable #1 center, and is statistically among the top thirty at his position, why is there constant chatter about looking to move on from him. The most common flaw in Stepan’s game seems to be how he looks when he’s on the ice. He’s not a particularly swift skater, he isn’t on the prowl looking to knock someone on their behind, and he doesn’t have the hardest shot in the world. Here’s where the disconnect happens between those on either side of the Stepan “debate”: All three of those things are true. Nobody can watch a Rangers game and tell you Stepan is buzzing around consistently causing issues, or letting 100 mph rockets go from his stick. And even despite all of those things being true, he still grades out as a top thirty center in the league. He’s even got past playoff heroics on his resume, but those seem to consistently be ignored:

Overall, the suggestions that Derek Stepan is some sort of liability for Alain Vigneault, Jeff Gorton, and the rest of the organization, is par for the course during the silly season that the offseason always turns out to be. While his the $6.5 Million he earns may not be great value for the team, it was a fair market deal for a low end 1st Line Center at the time of the signing and that still holds true today. Once the expansion draft and free agency come and go, Stepan will still be on the roster, and everyone in Rangerstown will be better off for it.