‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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Fear not, Rangers fans. Restricted free agent center Derek Stepan should be signed in time to take his physical on September 11, and take the ice a day later when the Blueshirts open training camp.
There shouldn’t be a holdout. In all likelihood, Stepan will sign a two-year “bridge contract” as the days tick closer to training camp. It won’t be the dollar amount or the length he desires. He might privately envy Adam Henrique’s six-year pact with the Devils.
After all, Stepan has proven himself as a more productive and more complete center than Henrique. Both players are 23 years old, yet Stepan is further advanced compared to his Metropolitan Division rival.
Stepan has blossomed into a positionally sound, two-way center. He has taken tremendous strides in both the offensive and defensive zone. Stepan nearly produced a point-per-game pace as he finished the 2012-13 season with 44 points in 48 games.
His playmaking abilities have risen to a near-elite level, and he has developed into an extremely-valuable penalty killer. Stepan’s defensive zone awareness has grown in leaps and bounds to the point that he was the Rangers’ playoff leader in shorthanded time on ice among forwards.
Henrique’s game is predicated on sheer effort and grit. In some ways, he’s similar to Stepan. Both are intelligent players who are lacking pure, physical strength. The difference between the two is that Stepan is a more dependable player in all situations, whereas Henrique is an all-effort skater who plays with more of an edge.
Right now, Stepan’s people and Glen Sather seem to be rolling the ball back and forth. Eventually, Stepan’s agent will bite and a deal will be struck before September 11.
Next time the wheel comes around, Stepan is going to get paid. Big-time. His offensive game will flourish under new head coach Alain Vigneault. He’s already a No. 1 center on a contending team at the age of 23.
Vigneault’s system allows his players to maximize their natural creativity. It wouldn’t be surprising if Stepan scores roughly between 70-80 points over the course of a full 82-game season, while continuing to be a dependable defensive zone player.
That kind of player is a rarity in the NHL. The Rangers aren’t going to be paying top dollar for Stepan now, but they will in the future.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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