Stepan Needs to Be “The Man” in the Middle

Derek Stepan (Getty)

Derek Stepan (Getty)

It’s no secret that one of the advantages the Los Angeles Kings had in the Stanley Cup finals against the Rangers was size and depth at the center position. Now, nearly one month after the Kings eliminated the Blueshirts in five games to capture their second Stanley Cup title in three years, a quick glance at the Rangers’ depth chart down the middle reveals an even thinner cast and the need for a leader to step forward.

Enter Derek Stepan, stage right.

With veteran leader Brad Richards a causality of the salary cap via way of an amnesty buyout, hulking Brian Boyle (who could play wing or center) signing as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Rangers having little wiggle room in the budget to dip into the free agent pool, the call has gone out to Stepan to take over as the team’s top center for the upcoming 2014-15 season.

Is he up for the challenge? His resume says he is.

Preparing for his fifth full season with the Rangers, Stepan has already had a solid start to his Blueshirts’ career. Coming out of the University of Wisconsin by way of an outstanding World Junior Championship tournament in 2009-10 in which he led the tournament in scoring with 14 points in seven games, the Minnesota-born raised Stepan has proven both durable and reliable. He has played in all 82 games in three of his four seasons and is just three points shy of 200 for his career (regular season). He has also added 29 points in 61 playoff games. This season, his established career highs in assists (40), points (57), and power-play goals (5).

His toughness was on full display in this year’s postseason, when he played after having his jaw broken by former Rangers Brandon Prust. Stepan would miss only one game in the playoffs following the injury.

But despite his overly consistent play, Stepan, who was drafted in the second round (51st overall) in the 2008 NHL entry draft out of perennial Minnesota high school hockey power Shattuck-St. Mary’s (which also graduated the likes of Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise, and Kyle Okposo among others) has to date, not been forced to be “the man” in the middle for the Blueshirts, instead flourishing as the No. 2 guy at the faceoff circle.

But if the Rangers are going to make another run to the top of the Eastern Conference, Stepan is going to have to lift his game a notch and get accustomed to the spotlight as the team’s top player down the middle. With likely wingers Rick Nash and Chris Kreider riding shotgun, is there really any reason why the 24-year-old couldn’t shatter his career high of 57 points and become one of the elite centers in the game?

The call is out for Stepan to fill the leadership void at center ice for the Rangers. Will he be there to answer the call when the puck drops on the 2014-15 season?

My vote says yes.

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