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.
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.