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Yes, the Rangers have a number one center

March 29, 2016, by
Photo: Charles Wenzelberg

Photo: Charles Wenzelberg

Every once in a while, the idea that the Rangers don’t truly have a #1 centerman pops up in Rangers discourse and I wanted to unpack this idea for a couple of reasons. First, it implies that neither Derek Stepan nor Derick Brassard is a true 1C, and second it undersells what is otherwise actually one of the Rangers’ major strengths: their center depth.

Both players have similar styles of play, functioning primarily to set up scoring opportunities for guys like Rick Nash, Chris Kreider, or Mats Zuccarello. While Brassard is perhaps a little bit flashier, making slick, highlight reel passes with favored scoring partner Mats Zuccarello, Derek Stepan is no less proficient at distributing the puck. Defensively they play similar games as well, with each center being positionally responsible and adept at providing puck support down the middle.

To get a little bit more into the numbers I decided to compare the two allegedly second-line centers to the platonic ideal of a 1C, Jonathan Toews. Now, this isn’t to say that either of them is on the elite tier of centers that Jonathan Toews is, and suffice to say neither has the same pedigree as the Stanley Cup and Gold Medal winning captain of the Chicago Blackhawks, but if either of the two New York Rangers is even in the same ballpark as Toews it can be safely said that they qualify as top line centermen.

Over the past three seasons Stepan, Brassard, and Toews have averaged, in all situations, a points per 60 minutes rate of 2.3, 2.4, and 2.37, respectively. This is to say that if Stepan and Brassard aren’t really top line centers they sure are producing points as though they are. Digging a little bit deeper their average CF%s relative to their teammates over the past three seasons, this time at even strength only, were 0.3, 2.43, and 3.27. Here we shouldn’t be surprised that Toews has better possession numbers than both Stepan and Brassard for two reasons: Toews is a perennial Selke candidate as one of the league’s best (if not the best) defensive forwards and the Rangers have struggled with puck possession in a big way lately.

In particular, Derek Stepan’s underlying numbers are brought down by the fact that he primarily played on a line last season with an aged and possession-cursed Martin St Louis. Similarly Derick Brassard, as on of the Rangers two top line centers, is out there playing big minutes for a team that has had some of the worst possession numbers in the NHL. Even so, taking into account this season only Stepan, Brass, and Toews’ relative CF%s are 3.1, 0.7, and 1.1 respectively, actually putting Stepan ahead of Toews in terms of possession, and with Brassard right in the same ballpark.

For reference I’ve included two of Dom Galamini’s (@mimicohero on twitter) WARRIOR charts, which help compare players’ performances over the past few seasons and show where they fall on the depth charts. Again, these numbers need to be couched in a little bit of context, as the Rangers are not nearly the possession team Chicago is, but it’s nice to have a visual to make a quick comparison.

Dashboard 1 (3)Dashboard 1 (4)

All of this is a lot of words and numbers to say something very simple: yes the Rangers have a top line center, and actually it’s more accurate to say they have two. Derek Stepan and Derrick Brassard both don’t post the outrageous possession numbers of a guy like Jonathan Toews, but they produce points at a similar rate and play defensively responsible games. It could be said that the Rangers are lacking an elite level centerman like Toews or Stamkos, but that doesn’t mean the Rangers are lacking a 1C. Given the market price of an elite, Kopitar-esque center that might be something Rangers fans should actually be thankful for.

"Yes, the Rangers have a number one center", 4 out of 5 based on 18 ratings.
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  1. SalMerc says:

    Yes we do and his name is Eric Stall

  2. Spozo says:

    People seem to confuse the term “first line center” and “allstar center”. By definition there are 30 first line centers in the NHL. There are 8 all star centers in any given year. The Rangers don’t have an allstar centerman but Stepan or Brassard would certainly be the best center on a number of NHL teams.

    • Dave says:

      Yup, that’s the biggest thing. People see the Kopitars and Toews of the world and think that if you don’t have one of those, you don’t have a #1 center. Those guys are the exceptions.

      In reality, the Rangers have a pair of 1Cs in Stepan and Brassard. A third if you throw Staal into the mix.

      • Seahorse says:

        idk dave, maybe they should trade away their entire roster, be atrocious for 6 years, get a transcendent, once in a generation player and still have no idea how to play defense and convince yourself as a fan that the future is bright and that that first round draft picks are can’t miss top six forwards, better than proven nhl players in their prime

    • SallyW. says:

      Spozo, you make an excellent point.

  3. Billybob beltbuckle says:

    Off topic, but:

    Dear Rangers

    Please don’t make the play offs! You’re not gonna make it past the first round so don’t waste our (fans) time with your playoff buffoonery

    Thank you and goodnday

  4. Eddie!Eddie!Eddie! says:

    Good analysis Pat. I largely agree with this.

    There are a lot of folks out here who think Stepan is overrated and overpaid. I do not. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the Rangers scuffled in late October into early November when he dealt with surgery to remove the screws from the broken jaw he suffered in the 2014 playoffs. And, in even more of an example of his worth, once Beleskey nailed him and broke his ribs, the team spiraled into an awful slump. He came back earlier than expected, and shortly thereafter, the team started to play better. And once he rounded into form, low and behold, the team took off in February, and other than a brief blip a few weeks ago, the team has been on a good roll. To me, all that is pretty strong evidence of his worth. Personally, I think he is arguably the most under appreciated Ranger, and other than Hank, one of their most valuable pieces.

    To those who think Stepan is overpaid and/or overrated, or maybe should be dealt this summer, I’d simply say, how else would you have better spent that money and still keep us as a contending team? He’s only 25 years old, and he figures to only get better over the next 3-4 years. The fact is, good centers are hard to find, and when the time comes to pay, you have to pay.

    My issue with the team is not with Stepan or Brassard per se. The are fine and bring good value. It is with this nagging feeling that I’ve had for a decade now that when I look at the roster, while we have a number of good players (indeed, it’s our depth that has made us successful), we lack exactly what Dave, Pat and Spozo reference….enough elite, all-star players that make the difference between being a strong contending team (which is what we are) and a champion (which is what we hope to be).

    The one real elite player we have, of course, is Hank. But who else? Well, McDonagh is an all-star. He’s flirted with “elite” status, but I’d say at the moment he’s a notch below. Nash was acquired to be that elite, difference making player. He’s had his stretches over his Rangers career where he’s been that, but I think it’s fair to say that more was expected when the deal was made. You can make the case that, as offensive defensemen go, Yandle is “elite”. But, even I, a Yandle fan, might call that a stretch. He’s a “bubble elite”.

    You now have Eric Staal, who is still very good but is no longer elite. And then you have Kreider, who by now was supposed to be that elite, special talent. He’s shown us that in spurts, but this year he’s regressed into a slightly better than average player. So he’s well short of expectations.

    Miller has had a really good year, but I’m not sure if we can project him out to be “elite” yet. Still TBD. Hayes has been a disappointment, so who knows? Zuc, Stepan and Brassard are very good players but I wouldn’t call them elite.

    Look at the top contenders. The Blackhawks have Kane, not to mention Toews and Panarin. Dallas has Benn, Seguin as well as Spezza. The Sharks have Pavelski and Thornton. The Pens have Crosby, Malkin and now Kessel.
    The Caps have Kuznetsov (who we could have had), Backstrom and Ovechkin. The Kings have Kopitar. The Blues have Tarasenko (who we could have had). The Flyers may or may not make it, but if they do, they’ve got Giroux (who we could have had). The Bolts have Stamkos and Kucherov. The Bruins, if they make it, have Bergeron (who we could have had). Getzlaf and Perry (both of whom we could have had) are having off years for the Ducks, and Taveras similarly in Brooklyn, but these are elite players. Pretty much every legit contender has at least one “go to” player that is considered elite, or a difference maker. Other than the Panthers, who I don’t think anyone thinks is going anywhere, the Rangers are the only team that will make the playoffs that doesn’t have such a player that’s not a goalie. At least not at the moment.

    This has always been my fear with this team. Messier referenced this in an interview some weeks back. He likes this team, says they know how to compete, knows how to win. But so far they lack enough guys who can step up and score big goals when it matters most. I agree with this 100%. It’s the way the team was constructed. Poor decisions on number one picks when we had favorable drafting position resulted in creating a team of good but not great players. To win with this group, without “go to” players, the team has to play nearly letter perfect hockey, and that is a difficult burden. And, it forced the team to then make some of the unpopular trades that sacrificed some of the future in order to maximize this window.

    That’s why I chafe at those who take Hank to task, or who think that AV somehow isn’t doing a great job. To win a Cup with this group, you are either going to have to play near letter perfect hockey (as they did for the Cup run in 2014, as well as for most of the 2014-15 season until injuries did them in), and/or players like Nash and E. Staal have to play like the stars they’ve been, Yandle and/or McDonagh play at a consistently high level, Krieder, Miller, Hayes, even if they are not linemates, become the triplets and become dangerous players to play against.

    The talent is there to do it. I still firmly believe in these guys. They’ve proven that when healthy, they know how to make deep runs and win series. But it won’t be easy as currently structured.

    If, perish the thought, this window closes without a Cup, it will NOT be because the goaltender, or the coach, or the defense wasn’t good enough. It will be squarely on the shoulders of those responsible for the drafting from 1998-2005, and then again in 2010 when we had top draft slots and came away with either outright busts or good but not great players.

    • JoeS. says:

      What a wonderful read Eddie! These guys here just never appreciate what they have. They would be bitching about Trottier and Bossy on the 80’s Islanders if they were fans! Only when the Cup is raised will they say, “Great Team”!

      To me, their loss! I love the Rangers!
      Enjoy watching every game, even when they frustrate. It’s why they play the game!

  5. joe K says:

    I am a total disagree about our top 2 centers. Stepan is overpaid very soft an its not the scorer Derick has become. Stepan is better defensively no question. Stepan is weigh over paid an misses many games every year it seems. Staal with the Rangers gives us some more size with Hayes. I think Staal playing on the wing with Hayes a better fit for both.

  6. JoeS. says:

    Excellent job Pat! Don’t care for the numbers ( Corsi )crap, but you are right on with the words!

  7. amy says:

    the two derrick’s brass #! and step#2 have a good day