The Rangers are rolling right now. They're skating hard, playing with emotion and relentlessly defending. The power play is clicking on all cylinders, while the penalty kill is keeping opponents at bay.
Players who were struggling the first three months of the season are now leading the team's renaissance. Every player that is, except for Derek Stepan.
While I expected some bumps due to missing almost all of camp because of his holdout, I thought Stepan would have figured it out by now. I mean, two goals in the last 26 games? Yuck.
I've said it before on the blog, but Stepan seems to be replicating what happened to Brad Richards last season. He began the year woefully unprepared and behind the eight ball physically, and now he's having a tough time catching up.
Amazingly, four months into the season, Stepan's timing still seems off. He's not taking advantage of the golden opportunities that have presented themselves nor is he generating offense for his wingers. And while Stepan has never been mistaken for Mike Gartner, it looks like he's skating in mud most nights. It's very easy to correlate Nash's lack of production to Stepan's struggles.
Stepan recently admitted to Larry Brooks of the New York Post that his hold out had a negative effect on him to start the season…
“The first 10 or 15 games, for sure it had an impact on me.”
So what can be done? How can Alain Vigneault get his default #1 center back to being the two-way threat he was last season?
Well, he needs to look no further than the motivational tactic that has worked wonders for Mats Zuccarello, Beniot Pouliot and to a lesser extent Michael Del Zotto…a healthy scratch.
All three of those players took advantage of their time in the press box to evaluate their game and make the proper adjustments.
While it's definitely easier for a head coach to sit secondary players, Vigneault really needs to make a drastic move here. The time for giving Stepan the freedom to play through his struggles is over. A serious message needs to be sent that his play is unacceptable. Yes, the Rangers have been much improved of late, but if they have any aspirations of being able to knock-off power houses such as the Penguins and the Bruins, Stepan needs to figure this out and figure it out now.
Every player reacts differently, but the result of the benchings of Stepan's teammates cannot be ignored. And starting tomorrow afternoon in Ottawa, Vigneault needs to find out if that strategy can also work if applied to Stepan.