Derek Stepan And The Concept Of The Playoff Performer

Joe Fortunato Note: As you might be aware, we are reviewing applicants for writing positions on Blueshirt Banter. Pat, who does some work for Blue Seat Blogs, will be joining us to do some longer pieces. This is the first of hopefully many.

As I made my way down the stairs, I listened to the chatter. The Rangers had just been eliminated from the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Ottawa Senators, a great injustice for which no explanation could quite suffice (except for the explanation that the defense was bad, which is pretty sufficient if you think about it, but I digress). The disappointed and more vocal fans around me made their grievances known, and I heard a number of things being said. One of the more common ones however, was that we needed to trade Derek Stepan. This gripe would build up steam over the coming weeks among a certain (vocal) segment of the fanbase, who insisted that Derek “Stephan” simply wasn’t clutch, and that his lack of effort in the playoffs was at least part of what cost us.

A few caveats before we jump into the meat of the matter: many fans blamed lots of players, and many fans also (rightly) blamed both the defense and the coaching. Still, it got me thinking then about what makes a player gain the reputation as a playoff performer and about what makes a player clutch.

With last week’s big trade, in which our beautiful bald eagle was sent packing along with everyone’s favorite Aunty, Antti Raanta, to Arizona, I began to think again about why certain players are considered more valuable in the postseason than others. Because sure, we all know it when we see it, but isn’t that kind of arbitrary and imprecise? Wouldn’t it be better to actually pin down who crabs really think is (Tanner Glass) or isn’t (Henrik Lundqvist) a playoff performer?

Let’s start off with a quick overview of the most recent playoff campaign: I like to look at P/60 in particular when evaluating a player’s offensive output, because it seems pretty intuitive to me – basically what you’re getting from that stat is the efficiency with which a player turns minutes into points. Ideally while we’d like each player on the team to score a goal a minute and each game to end 10000-0 (didn’t do the math on that, but if each player scored a goal a minute it’d be up there). That doesn’t quite happen, so instead we’ve got P/60 to help us out in determining the contours of who’s more efficient than whom.

With that said, the common prevailing wisdom that (some of) the Rangers’ big guns let the team down offensively — all while the utility players bailed the squad out — seems to be true. To wit – Kevin Hayes had a P/60 this past playoffs of 0.84, while J.T. Miller’s was 0.90, and Chris Kreider’s was only slightly better at 1.18. Vesey, Nash, Stepan, and Zucc came in around the middle of the pack, with P/60’s of 1.73, 1.35, 1.42, and 1.70 respectively. Meanwhile Grabner, Lindberg and Fast were at 2.14, 2.01, and 2.00 respectively. Mika Zibanejad was the clear outlier, with a P/60 of 2.51. For comparison, everyone’s favorite big game playoff ex-Ranger Derick Brassard had a P/60 of 1.91 these past playoffs, just slightly better than Jimmy Vesey and slightly worse than Jesper Fast.

But how do these numbers compare to the regular season? Well, along those lines Hayes, Miller, and Kreider most certainly disappointed, as they played to the level of 1.60, 1.92, and 2.08 points per 60 minutes respectively over the regular season. Fast, Grabner, and Lindberg all has significantly higher points per 60 in the playoffs and the regular season, as did Vesey.

Rick Nash and Stepan were only slightly better in the regular season than they were in the playoffs, at 1.73 and 1.67 P/60 compared to 1.35 and 1.42 in the playoffs, so it’s kind of strange then that you might hear complaints about a guy like Stepan or Nash’s playoff showing when they were only slightly less productive than they were over 82 games, and certainly not noticeably less productive (if you can spot the difference between 1.67 and 1.42 P/60 with your eyeballs then congratulations, your eye test is the best there is).

Let’s go back to Derick Brassard though for a minute. I mean really, was he THAT good in the playoffs when he was with the Rangers, and was he that much better than he was regularly or was it just a heat of the moment sort of thing? Well, in his last season with NYR Brass put up a P/60 of 2.85 for the playoffs, which is objectively impressive first of all (this year’s Conn Smythe winner Sydney Crosby had a P/60 of 3.47, and Erik Karlsson’s was 2.02, for reference) but even more so when you consider that his scoring rate that regular season was 1.64 points per 60 minutes. That’s means he scored at almost twice the pace he did that postseason than he did during the regular season (1.75 times greater, to be exact). But it’s curious then that Rick Nash doesn’t have something of a rep for being a playoff guy, as his P/60 that same postseason was 2.63, and the year before in 2015 his playoff P/60 was 2.38. Granted, Nash started off slow in the playoffs when he initially came to the team, but one would think that kind of pace would more than redeem him.

To keep things relevant to this year’s team however, one of the things I heard in the stairwell of the Garden on my way down to street level after watching the Rangers get eliminated was that we lost the trade with Ottawa (because they won I guess), and this is just plain untrue. Mika Zibanejad turned minutes into points at a rate of 2.51 this past playoff run, better than Brassard’s 1.91 and in line with the former Ranger’s final showing of 2.85 in the 2016 playoffs. All of that after a more than slightly broken leg midway through the season, on top of the age and salary factors and I’d say au contraire, the Rangers in fact won that deal by a very large margin.

Of course there’s more to hockey than numbers, and since I’ve just dropped a math textbook on you I’d be remiss if I didn’t move onto the more qualitative aspects of the game. First of all, there’s a general understanding among hockey fans that the playoffs simply matter more than the regular season. I mean just think of the kind of bitterness that results from winning the Presidents’ Trophy but not the Cup – it’s very little consolation knowing that if they playoffs were 82 games you totally would’ve won it. What’s more is that hockey is very much plagued, whether rightfully or wrongly, by “what have you done for me lately” syndrome. Because while it’s true that Derek Stepan scored that glorious Game 7 Overtime winner against the Caps in 2015 he was, I’ll admit, just OK this past go around. It’s also true that wearing a letter puts a little bit more weight on a guy’s shoulders, adding to the implication that when others fail to take on the mantle, Captains and Alternates should step up and get the job done.

But I also know this: hockey is a team sport, and a complicated one at that. Even an understanding that some dudes are in fact playoff monsters needs to be situated in the reality that it takes four lines, three pairs, and a goalie to win a Cup.

Year in and year out, there are plenty of singular performances on the road to Lord Stanley’s Cup, and yet inevitably some, if not most, of those standout showings fail to secure a championship for the team. All things considered, it’s safe to say that there are some “playoff performers” throughout the NHL, and it’s safe to say that different guys qualify in different ways, whether it be by consistently making the most of their ice time or by scoring one magical goal to propel his team into the next round. Unfortunately though the question is so complex, so mixed and blended, that a definitive answer to a question like “did Derek Stepan perform well enough in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs” is impossible to attain.

In any event, our bald eagle has left our roost. See you round, Step.