How could the Rangers replace Derek Stepan IF they trade him?

Derek Stepan has registered at least 53 points in each of the last four seasons

With the Rangers hamstrung by a tricky cap situation, several cumbersome no-movement clauses and few tradable assets that make sense to part with, there’s been quite a bit of chatter that Derek Stepan might be the most logical piece to dangle in exchange for a right-handed defenseman.

But while there’s some plausibility to the idea, dealing Stepan would also leave a gaping hole at center. So hypothetically speaking, how could the Rangers handle the crucial pivot position if Stepan were shipped out of town?

Stand pat and promote from within

In this scenario Mika Zibanejad would become the undisputed top line pivot while Kevin Hayes and Oscar Lindberg would receive more responsibility and ice time. But regardless of how high you are on Hayes and Lindberg, there’s a major drop-off in going from Stepan, Zibanejad and Hayes down the middle to Zibanejad, Hayes and Lindberg. Is that drop-off worth the upgrade on defense? That’s something that must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but there’s no doubt the Blueshirts would be taking a huge hit down the middle.

In this scenario, it’s also possible that JT Miller could be moved to center full-time, but most indications are that New York prefers to have him on the wing and that he’s more comfortable in that position. The vacant fourth line position could be filled from within by Boo Nieves, who pushed for a job out of camp last year but was quiet after that. But it’s hard to fathom him being handed a job uncontested – Nieves would almost certainly face some level of external competition (perhaps Maxim Lapierre for another PTO?).

Find a replacement through free agency

There are two fundamental problems here: 1) Free agency is pricey and would reduce the anticipated cap savings of dealing Stepan in the first place, and 2) It’s a poor free agent crop with few viable options.

Here’s a quick look at who’s scheduled to be available:

Joe Thornton – It’s difficult to imagine Thornton leaving San Jose under any circumstances, but Thornton and Rick Nash have had some outstanding chemistry in international play previously, so perhaps that could be appealing for Jumbo Joe. Fitting him under the salary cap at a guaranteed 35+ contract is another story, but he’s the one pending UFA that could match Stepan’s value to New York.

Mike Fisher – Fisher’s situation with the Predators is very similar to Thornton’s with the Sharks and it’s hard to fathom Nashville letting Carrie Underwood its beloved captain leave town. He’s also a dreaded 35+ candidate.

David Desharnais – The 30-year-old has barely been able to hold down an NHL job over the last two seasons and was run out of town in Montreal, but he has hovered around the 50-point plateau previously.

Martin Hanzal – Hanzal was one of the headliners at the trade deadline and put up decent numbers for Minnesota with 13 points in 20 games. He’s a solid third-line center but has had a very tough time staying healthy.

Nick Bonino – Poaching a player from the Penguins is obviously appealing and like Hanzal, Bonino would be a reasonable leader for the third line, but no more.

Brian Boyle – I can dream, can’t I? The smart money is on Boyle staying re-signing in Toronto, as Mike Babcock has loved him for years and the Leafs need a few battle-tested veterans to guide their youngsters.

Sam Gagner – The 27-year-old pivot turned perhaps his last chance in the NHL into a 50-point season and will be rewarded this summer.

The best of the rest: John Mitchell, Nate Thompson, Vern Fiddler, Dominic Moore, Jay McClement, Ryan White, Chris Kelly, Steve Ott, Tom Pyatt, Derek Ryan, Chris VandeVelde, Daniel Winnik, Yanni Gourde, Jordan Weal, Andreas Martinsen. Of these, I’d only consider Fiddler because he’s responsible for my favorite moment of Alain Vigneault’s career.

Obtain a lesser defenseman in tandem with a center for Stepan, or build a multi-player blockbuster

The whole point of trading Stepan would be to fetch that top-pairing D-man the Rangers sorely lack, so attempting to also acquire a useful center in a package for Stepan would be somewhat counterintuitive. That said, if the Blueshirts do intend to increase Brady Skjei’s responsibilities significantly and are able to re-sign Brendan Smith, then perhaps acquiring a bona fide top-pairing D-man isn’t an absolute necessity so long as New York gets a legitimate top-four guy that has exhibited the clear potential for more.

Last year’s swap of Derick Brassard for Mika Zibanejad is a decent model to follow here. Brassard was viewed as the best player in the deal at the time, but obviously the Rangers brass believed Zibanejad was capable of much more even if his value at the time wasn’t sky-high. Remember, Zibanejad also came with a second-round pick, so if New York instead focused on a D-man as the focal part of a return for Stepan and an unproven yet talented center was substituted for the second-round pick, there might be a way to build a solid deal. But yes, that’s a lot of ifs.

Of course, the other way of expanding the deal and getting both a center and a D-man in a trade for Stepan would be for the Rangers to amplify their side of the equation. That goes back to the earlier issues of New York not having much of value to realistically throw in, but it’s not impossible. Given Stepan’s salary, this would almost definitely have to be Kevin Klein or Nick Holden as it’s unlikely New York would part with another young forward unless the return was massive and the other D-men carry massive cap hits that would likely be too hard for another team to accommodate along with Stepan.

Make a second trade for a center

This gets tricky for all the reasons listed above. To get a good center, New York would again have to part with more assets it doesn’t really have to give. Certainly a reunion with Artem Anisimov would be nice, but Chicago would only consider dealing the Russian to get cap relief and that’s not an area the Blueshirts are positioned to help.

Youngsters Matt Duchene and Alex Galchenyuk are also on the block, but they’re premier young talents that would cost an arm and a leg. There will be other names that circulate as the expansion draft approaches, but as of now this looks like a dead end.

So with all that said, would you still deal Stepan? And if so, how would you replace him?