Friday, November 19, 2010

Derek Stepan: Top Line, Fourth Line or Hartford? The Decision Is On His Stick

Over the next month the Rangers will likely have to make at least one roster move and two lineup moves and the man who will most determine what happens is Derek Stepan.  Stepan has played mainly on the fourth line since very early in the year, but in each of the last two games he has gotten significant time on the line with Alexander Frolov and Marian Gaborik.  Against Pittsburgh they did not produce much, but against Boston in the third period they produced a goal and there seemed to be some significant chemistry between Stepan and Gaborik.  I expect that tonight against Colorado even if he doesn’t start with Gaborik and Frolov that Stepan will see significant time with them giving him every chance to cement his place ahead of Christensen in the lineup.  The reason that is crucial is because it changes the dynamic of the roster moves that have to made upon the return of Chris Drury in 2-3 weeks and Vinny Prospal in a month-six weeks.

Update: Follow-up from today's practice Stepan Gets Mile High Chance

If Stepan proves he can play with Gaborik and Frolov on a full-time basis then he locks in his roster spot and for my money the Rangers would have 10 locks for forward spots when Drury returns.  Those 10 would be Frolov-Stepan-Gaborik; Brandon Dubinsky - Artem Anisimov – Ryan Callahan; Ruslan Fedoteneko – Brian Boyle – Brandon Prust and Chris Drury leaving Avery, Boogaard and EC as 3 for 2 spots with White either held as a second extra or sent to Hartford.  I could certainly see an Avery-Drury-Christensen line as potentially successful as either the third or fourth line with the Boyle line being the other in the equation if Tortorella will continue to roll lines as he has done in some of the recent games.  When Prospal would come back a roster move definitely has to be made and if over the next month Stepan proves he can play with the top guys then White is the obvious choice, but then EC is also on the block as he would have no real role on the club at that point.

If Stepan fails to prove he can play with the top line then the decision making becomes even more intriguing in that you have to wonder if they will keep him here all year in a fourth line role especially when the move of him to Hartford does not risk losing any of the players since he is the only one who would go down that is not subject to waivers.  The likely move for the Rangers would be to try Prospal at center when he comes back with Gaborik and Frolov, though if Frolov continues to struggle you could see a Prospal-Christensen-Gaborik combination brought back or even Prospal-Drury-Gaborik which might make fans heads explode.  The only two lines on this club right now that are set for the relatively distant future are Dubinsky-Anisimov-Callahan and Fedotenko-Boyle-Prust, the rest is up for grabs. 

I have said before that my preference with Stepan if he is going to be a fourth liner here would be to send him to Hartford but in that I conflicted because of exactly what I wrote about last night in the failure of the Hartford staff to develop players.  In an ideal situation with a good staff I would send him down for say 2 months let him play 20+ minutes a night on a top line in Hartford, top power-play time and responsibility and let him hopefully dominate at a professional level.  That world right now does not exist so it leaves me in limbo as to what to do with Stepan.  Maybe a middle ground would be playing him on a third line with Avery and Drury as his wingers should he fail with Gaborik, letting Drury take many draws like Dubinsky is doing from his wing position.

There are plenty of roster and lineup decisions that have to be made over the next month to six weeks and for me all of it depends on the play of Derek Stepan in this interval.  If Stepan can show over the next two weeks before Drury returns and certainly the month before Prospal is back that he belongs not only here but above the fourth line consistently then guys like White and Christensen become infinitely expendable and if he cant both certainly can be (White for sure), but Stepan might be the one who gets sent out because of the opportunity to play significantly more in the minors, but also because he is the easy move in terms of waivers.

Top line, fourth line or Hartford it really is on Stepan’s stick to decide and the audition begins in earnest tonight.