By Matt L.
Barring any big shake ups, the Rangers roster is as good as set heading into training camp in September. This is wonderful since it gives us Rangers fan a whole month to debate and prognosticate every sort of permutation for line combinations.
At Coach Tortorella's rate of line juggling we might actually see every one of these permutations by the second period of the season opener. The biggest question that is being asked is who will play left wing to the Richards-Gaborik experiment. There are the staunch Sean Avery supporters that believe he is the real key to Marian Gaborik's success, the folks that believe Brandon Dubinsky should be the guy to inherit the first line wing position and there's also the camp (which includes this fantastic blog's proprietor) that feels Wojtek Wolski could be the missing piece. Here is where I say those options are nice and all, but what about Derek Stepan?
I will admit that this is not the first time Stepan's name has been mentioned in rounding out the top line. It's an idea that Jess Rubenstein of The Prospect Park is fully behind and has suggested numerous times. Jess makes a lot of sense in his opinion and to be honest, what else are with going to do with Stepan?
Looking down the middle of the Rangers' depth chart there are Brad Richards, Artem Anisimov, Brian Boyle, and Stepan. For argument's sake we can include Dubinsky here as a center as well. Now I will go out on a limb and say that Brad Richards will be the first line center when the season opens in October. Anisimov will most likely center the second line between Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan and we have to figure Boyle will center Ruslan Fedotenko and Brandon Prust on the checking line.
Does that mean Stepan is the fourth line center? That just doesn't seem right. It doesn't make much sense to have a playmaking center that scored 20 goals play only 7-10 minutes a night.
Let's look at it from a different perspective using faceoff percentage as our ranking system. Dubinsky ranks first with a 52.46% on faceoffs, followed by Richards at 50.66%, Boyle at 48.49%, Anisimov at 44.51% and lastly we have Stepan at 38.51%. With all due to respect to Stepan, 38.51% is not good. Even if we round up, it still isn't good.
On a statistical basis Stepan isn't in the top four and as mentioned before if we move Dubinsky to the wing, once again that leaves Stepan as the fourth line center. This isn't just about an ability within the faceoff circle, Stepan is a very responsible center and just because he barely won 40% of his faceoffs doesn't mean he is not cut out to be a center.
For fun let's look back to the 2000-2001 season when Richards was a rookie, he was a less than stellar 41.39% on draws and by his third season Richards was a respectable 47.43%. It's not foolish to think that Stepan will improve this coming season and continue to improve with persistent hard work.
I think we can all agree though that Stepan serving as a fourth line center would be a backwards step in his development and we're not even going to begin to entertain the thought of going to Hartford for minutes because that's just silly. So what do we do with him?
If the chemistry between Dubinsky-Anisimov-Callahan and Fedotenko-Boyle-Prust is too good to mess with and we don't want him on the fourth line then by process of elmination put him with Richards and Gaborik. However, my point goes beyond just a simple process of elimination. In his two seasons at Wisconsin, Stepan had 24 and 42 assists respectively. He finished in the top five in rookie scoring last season and this past May he had six assists in seven games at the World Championships. Stepan has the offensive skill and he has the ability to dish. Not to mention he's shown some flashes of chemistry with Gaborik. If Gaborik has Stepan and Richards feeding him pucks there's no reason why he should not reach that 40-goal plateau again. Plus, Stepan can learn a lot from Richards as the All Star center has stated he's coming into the organization as a veteran ready to take a leadership role.
We know what Stepan is capable of in the offensive zone and we all want him to be the first line center of the future. What better way to groom him into that first line playmaking center role than have him ride shotgun with an all-star first line playmaker?
That's what we should do with Derek Stepan.
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