New York Rangers center Derek Stepan has taken a back seat role for Team USA at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Along with Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler, Stepan is there as insurance if one of the starting 12 forwards for the United States suffers an injury. For a team with two, possibly three game-breakers at most, this should serve as a wake-up call to Stepan when he returns to New York to finish the 2013-14 NHL season.
While Team USA’s strength is in its center depth, having four strong two-way centers on the roster. Stepan needs to take his role to heart. He needs to realize that there are parts to his game that he can improve on for the rest of the season.
Consistency has been a problem not only with Stepan, but with linemates Rick Nash and Chris Kreider as well. The unit is either very productive and noticeable during games, or they are invisible with little impact other than taking time away from the other forward lines.
Nash and Stepan have shown just how hot they can be. When Nash scored 11 goals in 11 games, Stepan produced nine points, including six assists in that same span. Since that streak has ended, both Stepan and Nash are pointless in the five games leading up to the Olympic break. This is simply unacceptable production from a first-line center.
Many thought that the shortened 2012-13 campaign would prove the breakthrough point to top line center for Stepan’s career. He was downright dominant, producing game-in and game-out to end with a total of 44 points in 48 games. That total led the entire team in scoring for the year, though he had a less-than-stellar postseason with only four goals and five points in 12 games.
While he is on pace for 49 points, which would put him right near his career average in the first two years of his career, it is not up to the expectations for a fourth-year NHL player of his caliber. Los Angeles Kings forwards Mike Richards and Jeff Carter are examples of centers who took off in their third and fourth seasons in the NHL respectively. Richards’ production jumped from 32 points in 59 games in his second NHL season to 75 points in 73 games the year after that.
Carter had a slightly longer learning curve. He posted 53 points in his third NHL season while increasing his output to 84 points the following campaign. While all players develop at their own pace, Stepan’s production should not be regressing with the quality ice time and linemates he is playing with. Widely regarded as the player to jump start teammates’ production last year, it seems that a new linemate may be needed in order to do just that for Stepan.
The Rangers have 23 games left to play this season, and the schedule features several teams in the basement of the NHL standings. It is not out of the question for Stepan and Nash to catch fire once again and increase their output to acceptable levels. Coming home from Sochi after being a spare, Stepan should be playing with desire and determination to prove that he is part of the future of USA hockey and that he will have an impact on the national team for Olympics to come.
He has the skills and the hockey IQ to be an impact player in the NHL. He needs to refine his compete level and play hard. That chance will come with the Rangers’ final stretch leading into the postseason.