Player: Derek Stepan
Cap Hit Outlook: $6.5 Million/year, signed through 2020-2021 season
Status: Long-term Top Six Center
2015-2016 G-A-P: 22-31-53 in 72 GP
Yes, Derek Stepan’s salary cap hit of $6.5 million warrants a double take; yes, Step’s never scored more than the 22 goals he potted during this most recent 2015-16 campaign; and yes, he was “successful” at the faceoff dot a lackluster 46.7% of the time. Having said that, Derek Stepan is an integral, indispensible part of this New York Rangers team moving forward, playing the most important forward position on the ice and possessing a little bit of that all-important element that seems to have disappeared throughout the current roster: youth. To be blunt, Step isn’t going to kill you with his speed or upper-echelon skills or talent in any one facet of the game. Instead, he combines an extremely high hockey IQ with on-ice composure and a knack for “Stepan” up his game in the moments that matter the most (pun fully intended). He’s a clog in the Team USA machine, has scored enormous playoff goals and just completed his sixth full campaign with the club, and he’ll only be 26 when the puck drops on Opening Night of the 2016-2017 campaign.
After failing to advance out of the opening round of the playoffs for the first time since 2011, there’s no doubt that this core group of players that have represented New York so valiantly and have come oh-so-close to acquainting themselves with Lord Stanley is in need of a major shakeup. You’ll hear rumors and theories about which players to keep, which to target and which to dispatch. Step fits squarely into the former. With a likely emphasis on a fresh youth movement, there’s no doubt next season’s Blueshirts will have a vastly different look and feel. Stepan’s role as a top-six Center and leader in the room will only expand. Ideally, whoever’s coaching the club next year will be able to slot Step in with a speedy winger and a net crashing big man and allow him to use his methodical game to his linemates’ advantage.
Derek Stepan is somewhat of a lock to remain with the Rangers next year and beyond, and there’s a case to be made that outside of King Henrik and Captain Mac, he’s our most important mainstay piece moving forward. Admittedly, there’ve been stretches of time during which Stepan seemed to disappear on the ice and take his game with him. However, this writer believes that with the right pieces and another year of maturity, experience and perhaps the newly acquired feeling of early playoff letdown, Derek Stepan will continue to elevate his game and point totals as he now enters his prime. Expect to hear Step’s #21 introduced in late October at the Garden, and take solace in the fact that the Rangers have themselves a mid-20’s veteran presence to lead the charge for the new-look Blueshirts.