As the New York Rangers approach the 2014-15 season, one thing is for certain: Derek Stepan is now the team’s undisputed No. 1 center.
With Brad Richards gone and the team already thin at the center position, the Rangers desperately need Stepan to be their top pivot. And if the Rangers want any chance to return to the Stanley Cup Finals or even win a Cup, Stepan absolutely must be that No. 1. The question is, which Stepan will the Rangers get?
Will they get the one from the lockout-shortened 2013 season, scoring 18 goals and 44 points in 48 games, finally fulfilling his potential? Or will they get the inconsistent, enigmatic Stepan who scored 17 goals and 50 points in 82 games last season?
For the Rangers’ sake, they’d better get the 2013 version.
Part of the reason the Rangers fell short in the Stanley Cup Finals last season was not only their lack of timely goal-scoring, but their centers were badly outplayed by the Los Angeles Kings‘ four elite centers. Richards certainly did not play like a top center, and neither did Stepan. They need much, much more, and Stepan is the key.
Not only will he have to produce a season of 75 points or more, but he has to figure out a way to finish, as he was one of the Rangers’ most notorious for missing the net last season.
Derick Brassard may easily duplicate those numbers as a No. 2 center, but if Stepan doesn’t put up comparable numbers, the Rangers may struggle to make the playoffs, much less compete for a Stanley Cup. A lack of production from Stepan will make the center position that much thinner on the Rangers’ roster.
The truth is, Derek Stepan is now one of the Rangers’ most important and critical players, at least on paper.
He must prove it on the ice. The Rangers’ success or failure in the 2014-15 depends on it.