When the Rangers made their second round of cuts, they left 27 players in camp, for what we now know will be 23 (24 if you include Drury on IR) roster spots. Working with the 24 players that will be kept, there are very few spots left on the roster to be had. Of these 24 spots, seven will go to defensemen, and two will go to goaltenders, leaving 15 spots for forwards (including Drury). With what appears to be 11 forward spots locked up, assuming Erik Christensen and Brandon Prust are locks, there are five forwards battling for the final two spots on the roster.
The forward battle is a much more complicated battle than defense because of Chris Drury’s status, and the number of NHL forwards left for so few spots. With five forwards (Brian Boyle, Ruslan Fedotenko, Todd White, Derek Stepan, Tim Kennedy) battling it out for the final two spots, it is likely that the third and final cut won’t occur until Drury returns from his broken finger. Thus, the Rangers will likely make two cuts at forward after tonight’s game, and a third a few games into the season, leaving 14 total forwards once Drury returns. The only forward of that group that simply has not impressed is White. It’s not that he’s playing poorly, it’s just that he seems relatively invisible. If White is one of the cuts, that leaves four guys remaining for that final cut.
I’ve already drawn the ire of a lot of Ranger fans (and a lot of Penguins fans) for my defense of Ruslan Fedotenko, and I’m about to draw this ire again. Personally, I believe Fedotenko has played very well, and has earned a spot on the roster for a year, but that’s not where I’m headed with this. I believe that Fedotenko’s fate is no longer in his own hands. His fate lies in the hands of Derek Stepan, and how well he rebounds after a mediocre game in Detroit on Sunday. Stepan has proved he has top line center potential. Should Stepan rebound and have a stellar game, it looks like he will remain with the club until Drury comes back, and probably longer. If that is the case, then it is likely that Fedotenko will be cut, as he simply would not have a place on the team that already has an abundance of third and fourth line players under contract.
However, should Stepan have a repeat mediocre performance, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him get sent to Hartford, and spend a full year there. Sometimes, you need to look at the future, as well as the present, when making tough decisions. Playing Stepan on the top line with Alex Frolov and Marian Gaborik is a risk. Stepan is just 21 years old, and still has a lot of maturing to do, even though he has clicked with both wingers. Should his play slip, will fans call for his removal from the top line? If Tortorella decides to remove him from the top line, and thus the top powerplay line, how will that affect his confidence? Where will he be slotted? There are so many questions that arise if he struggles.
For a team that simply is not a Stanley Cup contender this season, barring a plane crash involving the entire Eastern Conference, it makes logical sense for the Rangers not to rush their prized prospect. Stepan will be a top line center during his career, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him eclipse the 80 point mark a few times in his career. But rushing Stepan can lead to so many problems, and can certainly hamper his development to the point that Ranger fans would want him gone. Of course that is the worst case scenario, but it has happened before. Stepan is best served getting guaranteed minutes on a top line, top powerplay unit, and top penalty killing unit if he is to truly develop into the player we all hope he can be. If he can’t be guaranteed that in the NHL, because there is a focus on winning now, then he is better off getting those minutes in Hartford, where he can also build some chemistry with Evgeny Grachev.
Entering tonight’s game, Stepan not only controls his own fate, but likely that of Ruslan Fedotenko as well. It’s quite simple; play well, make the team, and probably send Fedotenko packing. As for Fedotenko, my opinion is well known, to put it lightly. But it doesn’t look like he controls his own fate anymore. While the likely scenario is that he will be extended a contract offer with Stepan going to the AHL, there is that outside chance Stepan plays well enough to force management to bid adieu to Fedotenko. Much more will be known after tonight’s game, but it is a rare occasion when a kid has his own fate, and the fate of a veteran, in his own hands.