Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What Is Derek Stepan's Ceiling?

photo by Robyn Florek (@njrobynf)

When Derek Stepan signed with the New York Rangers there was hope that he would be able to make the team out of training camp, but no one could have hoped or imagined the season he was going to have in his rookie campaign.  At the start of training camp there was debate about whether playing on a lower line at the NHL level or going down and being a top line player getting large minutes in the AHL was better for his development.  That question appeared to be one that was going to go on throughout the preseason and make the roster decisions for the Rangers difficult, but with his play in camp and the preseason Stepan locked up his spot on the roster and has not looked back.

Tonight when he returns to Buffalo he will not only be going back to the site of his first career game but where he scored a hat-trick in his debut.  That hat-trick set the 20-year-old rookie on his way to a campaign that with his goal against Boston on Saturday now has him as the youngest New York Rangers player to score 20 goals since Alexi Kovalev did it during the 1992-93 season.  Overall in his rookie season he has posted a scoring output of 20-21-41 in 76 games. 

Coming out of college I expected Stepan to adjust well to the NHL, if not this quickly, and to be a very good playmaker that could you his intelligence, vision and passing ability to make his teammates better.  Additionally there was no questioning of his maturity, two-way play, willingness to play the body and penchant for the big spot as he started his career.  What I did not expect was for him to chip in as many goals as he has this season which leaves the question as to where the ceiling is for Stepan?

I expected Stepan to be a 15-20 goal guy who chipped in 45-50 assists when he established himself as a consistent NHL player.  The fact that he has scored 20 goals in his rookie season will make some expect higher and higher outputs from him going forward.  Even with that level of production I still would not refer to him as a goal scorer, as his many of his goals are not beautiful plays that make the jaw drop, but just plays that get the job done.  If his ceiling even changes from maybe 15-20 to 25-30 that is a huge difference on a team like New York that has so struggled to find consistent offensive production and the difference between a very good second line type playmaker and a first line player if he can reach his potential in the assist department.

I do not want to focus solely on the surprise that is goal scoring and neglect to discuss how impressive the transition he has made has been.  Stepan has this knack for being in the right place at the right time and the puck seeming to find him and that is something that cannot be taught.  For a player to shift from the college to pro game as he has in terms of the longer schedule, the bigger, tougher opponents and hold up has been crucial to where the Rangers currently are in the standings.  There have been dips in his game, but with each dip there has been no sulking, no complaining about being moved down in the lineup just a resolve to do whatever it takes to help the team win.  That team first, win first mentality is what had him as the captain of Team USA’s gold medal effort just a year ago, why he was a letter wearer at Wisconsin and why before all is said and done he will have a letter on his chest with the New York Rangers.
With the combination of work ethic, intelligence and hockey skill the ceiling on his career is completely in the control of Derek Stepan and I look for him to maximize everything he can out of it and give the fans of the New York Rangers reasons to cheer for many years to come.  The biggest thing that Stepan has to work on in his game is his faceoffs if he wants to remain at center over the long term, but he will likely end up playing left wing.  To have a ceiling as a 70-80 point guy is certainly nothing to sneeze at and while it might take a few more years to get to that level it will certainly be worth the wait and I am not willing to bet against him.

What do you think Stepan's ceiling is?

*Thanks to Robyn Florek for the Stepan picture