Today on Twitter Joe Fortunato of Blueshirt Banter, Dave
Shapiro of BlueSeatBlogs and I debated whether Derek Stepan should be the
Rangers’ first line center between Marian Gaborik and Erik Christensen.
While I do believe that Stepan, 20, will eventually center
the team’s top line, I don’t think now is the time. Stepan’s ability is not in doubt, and he
seems to have all the qualities a team would want not only in a star player,
but in a captain.
But to expect Stepan to go from playing 41 college games last
season (48 including the World Junior Championship) to 82 NHL games in New York City alongside
one of the league’s premier goal-scorers is a huge jump. It’s an awful to expect from a 20-year-old.
Sure some 18, 19, and 20-year-olds make NHL teams out of
training camp and some even have great success in their rookie seasons. But it’s extremely rare for a college kid to
make that leap. Youngsters from the OHL,
QMJHL and WHL play 68, 68 and 72 games a season, excluding playoffs, and in
most cases those games are against higher competition than Stepan ever saw in
Stepan has rare characteristics, to be sure, but it’s
difficult to imagine him not wearing down a bit at some point this season. Instead of that happening on Broadway where
the pressure is often suffocating, Stepan should play his first grueling
82-game season in the minors. And if he
really is ready for the NHL, Stepan should start on the second or third line
where he won’t be expected to gel with Gaborik right away and can develop
slowly like Artem Anisimov did last season. Then if he does start to struggle he can be sent to the minors and the
team won’t be crippled.
To me it’d be ideal for Stepan to play three games on the
first or second line while Chris Drury recovers from his finger injury to get
his feet wet, then be sent to Hartford. Hopefully Stepan would dominate in Hartford, lead the Wolf
Pack (or Whale) to the Calder Cup, and come to training camp next year
expecting to center the Rangers’ top line.
I have no doubt that Stepan will be an NHL star, but I don’t
think there’s any rush or incentive to forcing him into such a difficult
situation. The Rangers aren’t a Stanley
Cup contender and adding Stepan won’t change that. So there’s no reason to put unrealistic expectations
and pressure on him. Instead, the
Rangers should attempt to give Stepan valuable experience, success and
confidence in Hartford. It won’t change his spot on the team next
season and for the future, and it will give him a much better chance at success.