Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Derek Stepan Looks To Prove He Belongs On Top

Based on the lines we saw at practice yesterday, tomorrow night, Derek Stepan, a 20 year old rookie, will be back with the New York Rangers best offensive weapon Marian Gaborik on what is presumably the team’s top line.  This will not be the first time that the rookie is tasked with the opportunity and responsibility that comes with the position, but for Stepan looks to prove it is the last time they have to change centers for Gaborik.  Playing on the top will not be his only responsibility in the game as to try and fix a broken power play unit and due in large part to the struggles of second year defender Michael Del Zotto it is Stepan who is being asked to quarterback the play with the man advantage.  It certainly is a lot to ask of a 20 year old who just eight months ago was playing in the NCAA title game, but at every turn this season Stepan has shown he is up to any task that the coaching staff puts on his stick.  Given that fact I have no doubt that Stepan will create chances on the top line as he has in his other opportunities with Gaborik my only question is how long it will be before coach John Tortorella pulls the panic button and moves him around again.

By my count Derek Stepan started in the middle with Marian Gaborik in five games this season originally with Alex Frolov on the left wing and then one game with Brandon Dubinsky as the left winger.  In those five games Stepan recorded at least one point in each game, but for some reason once Gaborik missed a game due to the flu they were separated and Christensen was put back with Gaborik when he returned against the Penguins, while Stepan was moved with Dubinsky and Callahan.  After four games of that set of combinations in which Stepan played well with those two wingers and Gaborik had one fantastic game against the Islanders and little else and now Stepan goes back.

Of all the Rangers current centers Stepan has the best combination of skills to play with Gaborik at this time.  He possess excellent vision and passing skills that make him an ideal playmaker to create opportunities for Gaborik to play off of him, while also being willing to take the shot if it presents itself.  A large problem for people who have played with Gaborik is a timidity in terms of shooting the puck and deferring to him to make the play, but Stepan has not shown that issue which bodes very well for him.  In addition to those attributes Stepan has the required speed and quickness to keep up with Gaborik, poise and strength on the puck, excellent decision making and a willingness to play the body when the opportunity presents itself. All of these attributes will help to create space for Gaborik and the attention that Gaborik draws will help Stepan as well.

Personally I do not buy Fedotenko on that line as will be the case tonight, but since they want to keep Dubinsky and Callahan together, Frolov is playing awful and Avery is not exactly the mark of consistency I guess it is Ruslan’s job to win until Prospal comes back or they spin the wheel of combinations again.  Working in Fedotenko’s favor though is that he does have some chemistry with Stepan from when they played together late in the preseason and early in the year and for the most part Fedotenko does what Avery does with more consistency and less headaches.  The only place where Fedotenko really lacks in comparison to Avery skill wise is passing ability.

It is no secret that the Rangers have been looking for a prototypical top line center for years now and have come up short of finding one that could lead the franchise forward.  It is that fact which spurs much of the trade rumors for a player like Brad Richards that link him to the New York Rangers.  I am not going to argue that today Derek Stepan is that guy or will be that guy this season, but if and with this coaching staff that is a big if they leave him alone on the top line even if the line has a game where it does not produce some consistency can build between he and Marian Gaborik because they have already flashed chemistry.  Over the course of the season it is Stepan who in his limited opportunities with Gaborik has most consistently created chances and not the man of a thousand chances Erik Christensen.  Obviously Stepan will have to continue to earn the time and the opportunity, but he should be given every chance to do so and take the hand off the panic change everything button.

If I was coaching this team I leave Derek Stepan with Gaborik for a nice long stretch as it is the best chance to create scoring opportunities and long term it has the greatest impact for the franchise as you are allowing your 20 year old rookie to gain as much ice time and situational responsibility as he can every night out there.  He will have his ups and downs as any young player but if the franchise is honest with itself they know they are not contenders so as much as you want to compete each game the season in the big picture is about development and Derek Stepan and also for me Artem Anisimov and their development is the most important factor to get out of this season which is why both should be playing top 6 roles and let everyone else fill in around them as this will allow them to showcase that we have our centers of the future here already.