One of the major talking points to come out of the disappointing playoff exit has been Derek Stepan. Stepan, the team’s top center and will be 27 years old in June, had a rough postseason. He had just two goals and six points in 12 games, and was one of the many key offensive threats that disappeared in the postseason.
It’s worth noting that before this postseason, Stepan put up lines of 5-10-15 in 24 games (2014 postseason), 5-7-12 in 19 games (2015 postseason), and 2-0-2 in 5 games (2016 postseason). I’m using the last three postseasons, as those were the ones where he was the top line center. So he’s producing about 0.5 points per game on average in the postseason. That’s not exactly terrible.
The complaints about Stepan go beyond his postseason performance though. He seems to be about a half step too slow for Alain Vigneault’s speed-based counter attack offense, and is a bit too methodical on the power play, refusing to shoot from the off-wing. His face-offs aren’t a strong point either. And honestly, these are all very valid arguments.
But I do get the feeling folks are missing the forest for the trees. In the regular season, Stepan is a shoo-in for 55 points, usually hovering around 17 goals. He’s been at that mark for the past four seasons, and has shown no signs of slowing down. He does this while, for the most part, driving possession relative to his teammates. He’s solid in all three zones, and a strong two-way center.
At $6.5 million, Stepan’s contract is certainly under scrutiny as well. Looking at his comparable contracts on CapFriendly, he falls on the slightly overpaid side of things. Names like Blake Wheeler ($5.6 million), Ryan O’Reilly ($6 million), Bryan Little ($4.7 million), and Derick Brassard ($5 million) are the top names that come up. Worth noting, though, that Little hasn’t played a full season in a while, ROR had the same production in Buffalo, and Brassard had 39 points this year. Wheeler had back-to-back seasons of 70 points, so he skews this a bit.
The concern when it comes to trading Stepan is replacing him. Players like him –strong two-way players who consistently put up 55 points and play 90% of the season– are very difficult to find. The Rangers don’t have an elite center like Crosby or Malkin or Backstrom or Kopitar, so they need to rely on depth down the middle to win.
We learned in the playoffs that Kevin Hayes may not be ready to handle 2C responsibilities. So in the event that the Rangers do trade Stepan for a defenseman, who has a no-trade clause as of July 1, the Blueshirts may fill one hole by creating another. Mika Zibanejad will certainly slide into the 1C role, but with Hayes’ uncertainty in the 2C role, the Rangers would need to find one on the open market. Maybe Joe Thornton or Patrick Marleau on a one-year deal? That’s really it for top-six centers that are free agents.
It’s tough to make a call about trading Stepan at the moment. Simply put, it’s not worth it to just dump him. He has significant value to the team, and a 12 game sample in this year’s postseason doesn’t change that. Now if Stepan is dangled as a key piece to land a cornerstone right-handed defenseman, then I’m all ears. So like all questions about trading someone, it’s about the deal and the fit. Personally, I think trading Stepan creates a huge hole that is tough to fill. But if it’s Justin Faulk or Jacob Trouba, then I’m thinking long and hard.