After a brief absence it’s apparent the Rangers aren’t the same without Derek Stepan

Derek Stepan (Scott Levy / Getty)

Derek Stepan (Scott Levy / Getty)

How quickly things can change in the NHL these days. The New York Rangers looked like one of the best teams in the East and arguably the National Hockey League for an entire month but without Derek Stepan in the lineup for essentially a game and half, things got scary.

NY won thirteen of fourteen games including streaks of eight and five before a two game skid to the Isles and Bruins. Rick Nash continued his torrid pace, and Chris Kreider was beginning to heat up as well. The Rangers leading scorer Mats Zuccarello from a season ago was played like a top right-wing the Rangers expected him to be. The defense was finally playing as a cohesive unit and the goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist and Cam Talbot has been nothing short of amazing. Then they hit a hiccup.

Derek Stepan was injured in the first period against the Islanders!

Then Derek Stepan was injured in the 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders and didn’t play after the first couple shifts of the second period. The Rangers tried to mix up their centers but none of the Rangers centerman could do what Stepan does. The Rangers went six scoreless periods while allowing six goals against to the Islanders and Boston Bruins. Derek Stepan was dealing with what the team called an upper body injury and his absence was noticeable.

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It’s possible the injury was from a slash to the wrist  from Islanders fourth line forward  Matt Martin that forced Stepan to miss the entire Bruins game. Coach Alain Vigneault tried to mix up his lines but against the veteran Bruins team and  J.T. Miller was used at center.

While Derick Brassard was dealing with the Mumps, Miller played on the top line and the Rangers didn’t miss a beat. In the few games Miller played in the top six at center or wing, he played some of his best hockey in his short NHL career. However, against Boston he had a miserable game and made an ill advised pass in front of his crease that led to the Bruins second goal.

The two losses are evidence that Derek Stepan is one forward the Rangers have no viable replacement for.
Derek  Stepan

Derek Stepan (Photo by Anthony Causi)

Stepan’s importance to the Rangers is undeniable, as they’ve struggled playing without their best two-way pivot. His line has not driven possession very well without him. With a center that is not as responsible in the defensive zone, that line is a liability on the ice.

Derek Stepan is solid at both ends of the ice, he can shutdown the oppositions center and has been on a point per game pace. Those were tough skates for J.T. Miller or any of the centers in the organization to fill. Derek Stepan  might be as important to the Rangers as Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, or even Henrik Lundqvist.

Derek  Stepan's linemate MSLK

Marty St. Louis needs to step up his play to help Derek Stepan (getty)

Derek Stepan’s early season injury has exposed the lack of depth down the middle.

While Derek Stepan was healing from a fractured fibula, head coach Alain Vigneault had limited options at center. Martin St. Louis filled in admirably at center but his offense  suffered.

The Rangers have a good group of centerman from lines one to four but if there is an injury like the one to Stepan, the Rangers options are limited.

Glen Sather will need to look around the NHL for a depth centerman that can win a face-off and play wing if and when needed. The Rangers don’t have many forwards in the organization that are able to come in and play top six minutes.

Chris Mueller played seven games with the Rangers early on but has been in Hartford [su_pullquote]MSG Announcer Joe Micheletti “Stepan leaves a big void in the Rangers lineup when he isn’t in there. He added that he makes a lot of subtle plays and “it’s a pleasure” to watch him.[/su_pullquote]since. Aside from Mueller the Rangers young forwards in Hartford don’t have much NHL experience if any.

Point is that if Derek Stepan were to go down long-term, the Rangers playoff hopes could slip away. They aren’t in a cushy position as of right now and cannot afford to get complacent for a single shift, period, or game. There is a need for a depth centerman first and foremost. The Rangers could also use a big solid fourth line winger like a Chris Stewart from the Sabres that is multi faceted.

The Rangers came back after losing two straight games with a gritty win in Columbus. Derek Stepan scored assists on both New York Ranger goals. In Pittsburgh Stepan was one of the leaders in the Rangers 5-2 win. They’ve stopped the bleeding after loosing two they have now won two in a row. [su_p

Having a 200 foot player like Derek Stepan in the lineup completes this team. Rangers Captain Ryan McDonagh went on to say “he’s a very calming influence when he has the puck out there”. “He makes a smart, solid play every time he has it. Nine times out of ten, he can get the puck in the right hands. I know he wasn’t feeling the best but he’s a gutsy player.” Stepan plays in all situations and is extremely important to his team. But what if he were to go down again? What would the Rangers do?

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The Rangers don’t have much in the way of cap space to add a significant contract unless they send a roster player the other way with a comparable cap charge. Antoine Vermette is a very enticing player with a manageable $3.750 cap hit. Vermette could be a rental as a free agent at season’s end.

Antoine Vermette has a 53.7% success rate in the face-off circle, and he is a decent possession player. There is no denying that Derek Stepan is an integral part of what the New York Rangers want to do to win hockey games. However, injuries are a part of the professional game and teams need a viable contingency plans in place for these situations.

Sather needs to find a forward that can cover if one of the Rangers top six go down with injury. The two games played without Stepan showed us how fragile a teams morale can be after a loss like the ones suffered to the Bruins and Islanders. More importantly, in the two games since he’s been back – it shows just how important Stepan is to the Rangers success.

I began watching the Rangers in 1990 when I was 9 years old. Soon after a lifelong friend of... More about Bob-O

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