This can’t be the start to the season Derek Stepan and his agent imagined when the two decided to hold out for the entirety of New York Rangers‘ training camp and preseason over a contract dispute. Stepan (zero goals, five assists, minus-eight) was looking for bigger money than the Rangers were willing to offer. He and his agent were under the impression that Stepan, who led the Rangers in points last season, was the top forward for New York and should be paid like it. They could not have been more off base.
Stepan has done absolutely nothing to warrant a large contract let alone get top-six minutes this season. His indecisive, sloppy play in the offensive zone has been somewhat disguised by the rejuvenated Brad Richards playing on the same line. If it weren’t for Richards’ hot start, Stepan would be public enemy No. 1 in Rangerland right now.
The playmaking ability we witnessed from Stepan last season is nowhere to be found. He’s been hesitant to shoot the puck. He’s making safe passes that don’t create space or opportunities for his teammates. His puck handling has been abysmal. His forecheck has been soft. He’s losing his assignments on defense. All in all, it has been a disaster that has cost the Rangers dearly and been a major part of their 2-6 start.
Stepan got off to a slow start last season too. I remember watching him at the beginning of last year’s 48-game season and scratching my head trying to figure out what was going on with him. Eventually he got hot and became arguably the Rangers’ most important forward last season. We’re not even one-eighth of the way through the 2013-14 NHL season so I am not giving up on Stepan, but his game needs to improve if the Rangers want to tread water while Ryan Callahan, Carl Hagelin and Rick Nash are out with injuries.
There is still enough talent on this roster for the Blueshirts to compete every night, but when a star like Stepan doesn’t perform, it spells big trouble for everyone.
Martin Burns covers New York Rangers hockey for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter (@martin_burns) for more thoughts and news on the Blueshirts as well as the rest of the NHL!