The New York Rangers are one of the best teams in the NHL this season and should finish as the top seed in the Eastern Conference. At the moment, they are three point ahead of the Montreal Canadiens and New York has played one fewer games The Rangers have clinched the Metropolitan Division and are running away with the division as they have the second biggest divisional lead in the league at ten points. One big contributor for the Rangers has been the play of one of their most consistent yet still relatively unknown players.
Center Derek Stepan is perhaps one of the most underrated players in the league, let alone his team, right now. Everybody knows the big names on the Rangers like goalie Henrik Lundqvist and forward Rick Nash and they got another big name at the trade deadline in defenseman Keith Yandle. Even though these big names are good to have, and are producing like they should, it is often the play of some of the secondary guys that determines how deep a team goes in the playoffs. Without the play of Stepan, the Rangers offense would still produce but most likely it wouldn’t be top five in the league. Perhaps the biggest contribution for Stepan has been on the defense as his awareness and quick thinking makes him a key part of any game plan.
One of the great things about Stepan is the fact that he is a great two way forward. On the season, Stepan has a +26 rating and is averaging just under a point a game. Stepan scored two goals and had an assist in Monday’s 4-3 overtime win against one of the hottest teams in the league in the Columbus Blue Jackets. He is close to setting a new career high in points as he needs three points in the final three games to set a new career high with 58 points. Stepan has great vision which helps him be a force on special teams has he has ten power play and five shorthanded points on the season. The one area that he could be a little better in is face-offs, but he can get the job done when he needs to, especially in the defensive zone.
Stepan missed the first 12 games of the season due to a broken leg he suffered during a conditioning drill. This equated to the first month of the season and during this stretch of time, the Rangers struggled to find any real consistency in their play. New York went 6-4-2 during this stretch and it was hard to see whether or not this was a hangover from their Stanley Cup run last season. The Rangers offense was doing well as they scored an average of 2.75 goals per game, but their defense was letting them down allowing an average of 3.0 goals per game. Since his return though, the Rangers have defense has been one of the best and their offense has continued to be one of the best in the game.
Stepan has been crucial in elevating the game of Chris Kreider who is finally starting to live up to the expectations the team have. Kreider has already set a career high in goals scored this season with 21 and assists with 25. Kreider is making the most of his time with Stepan as the combination of Kreider’s speed and Stepan’s vision is turning out to be a lethal combination. Stepan has also been good to teach Kreider how to play defense as the 23 year old has a +24 rating on the season. The other player on that line has moved throughout the season, but right now it is J.T. Miller and he has four points in his last six games.
When the playoffs do start, the Rangers are going to need some of their big names to produce and chief among them is Stepan. Their defense will be solid with Lundqvist, or even Talbot, in net and they won’t need Nash to score as many goals. Stepan is a player that is so big in so many aspects that he can elevate the play of anyone he plays with. In the playoffs, what teams need is a strong defense and someone who doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. As long as Stepan is healthy and anchoring that second line, the Rangers will be dangerous in the playoffs and a strong candidate to go deep in the playoffs.