Is Derek Stepan A First Line Center?

Derek Stepan's start to the 2013 campaign was miserable and cause for concern. Only one goal and four assists in his first eleven games, often being invisible on the ice. A player marred by inconsistency in the past, it seemed to be more of the same for Stepan. After that, however, Derek Stepan got on a hot streak. After last night's performance he now has 33 points in the last 33 games. And 29 points in his last 26 games. Or 13 points in his last 10 games. He has registered at least one point in nine of his last 10 games. Any sample size you take; any period of time you choose. No matter what, it's reflective of not only a productive Derek Stepan, but a consistent one. And one has to wonder if the label of "hot streak" should be abandoned. Maybe it's no streak at all; maybe this is what Derek Stepan has become.

The underwhelming season from all of our centers, and Brad Richards especially, is a discussion for another article. But the purpose it serves here is to highlight just exactly how important Derek Stepan has been to the Rangers. Rick Nash has had very few games where he has struggled this season, but almost all of them occured when Brad Richards was a black hole of offense and Nash was forced to be Superman. Nine of Rick Nash's 19 goals this season have come with a Derek Stepan assist attached. And while to some degree that is Derek Stepan benefitting from Rick Nash doing what Rick Nash does, the relationship absolutely has been symbiotic. On a team with so many talented forwards; Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik (for most of the season), and Ryan Callahan, it is Derek Stepan who is comfortably second on the team in points. Ten ahead of Richards. Fourteen ahead of Callahan. 

In fact, Derek Stepan's point totals look impressive compared to the NHL as a whole. On NHL.com's ranking of centers by points, Stepan is currently in the 15th spot. We should qualify that with the fact that NHL.com's categorizing of players as centers is questionable; Jeff Carter is listed as one, but has been playing wing in Los Angeles, for instance. Nonetheless, it still paints a nice picture of how Stepan has performed this season. Ahead of guys like Tomas Plekanec, Sam Gagner, Mikko Koivu, David Krejci, and Mike Richards. All guys who are either clear-cut top line centers or at least belong in the discussion. And he's only one point behind Joe Thornton and Anze Kopitar. Three behind Pavel Datsyuk. Four behind Henrik Sedin. If he wasn't completely lost for the first 10 or so games of the season, one has to wonder if Stepan would be past even those guys. 

Those are the offensive numbers, but even his other totals imply a more well-rounded Derek Stepan. In his rookie season Derek Stepan had a faceoff percentage of 38.5%; statistically the worst player on faceoffs in the entire NHL. The following season, Tortorella played Stepan on the wing for many games, and it appeared that his future could be away from the center position. This season, Stepan's faceoff percentage stands at 46.5%, and while that's still a below-average number, it's dramatically improved from where it once was. Even with Tortorella trusted Stepan to take more important faceoffs against better centers. He's no longer a liability in the faceoff circle, which is important for anyone who wishes to stick at the center position.

He's also improved his game defensively. According to Behind The Net, the Rangers let in an average of 1.58 goals against per 60 minutes when Derek Stepan is on the ice, which is well below the 2.30 goals against that the Rangers average. And this is despite having one of the highest QUALCOMP ratings out of all forwards on the team (in other words, he is on the ice against better offensive players than most of the team faces). John Tortorella has given Stepan the role of first unit penalty killer, with his average of 2:05 of playing time shorthanded per game only below Ryan Callahan among NYR forwards. Or a lot more playing time shorthanded than he was getting last season, when he averaged 1:17 per game. 

I hesitate to draw any conclusions from small sample sizes. In fact, even whole seasons can be misleading; just look at Petr Prucha's rookie season or Brian Boyle two seasons ago as examples of that. The 35 or so relevant games from Stepan this season is right on the divide of a "small" and "legitimate" sample size. It certainly is not enough games to accurately project his career, but it clearly has surpassed the point where it can be attributed to a nice streak. This season he has undoubtedly played at the caliber of a first line center. As for the future? That's not as clear-cut. Most forwards peak between the ages of 25-27. Stepan, as a 22 year old, is already putting himself in the first-line center discussion. He is producing goals and points at very similar rate as Jonathan Toews, Mike Richards, and Eric Staal were doing as 22 year olds. But all players have different timelines for development so we can't accurately project Stepan's career on that alone. Here is what I feel comfortable saying; at minimum, we can expect 20 goal, 60 point kind of production from him on a yearly basis. And it would not shock me in the least if he became an 80 point center. He's not going to ever touch the Crosby's and Datsyuk's and other elite centers, but make no mistake; Derek Stepan is well on his way to soldifying himself as a good 1st line center in the NHL.

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