By Sean Hartnett
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It’s been nearly six weeks since the Rangers traded longtime alternate captain Derek Stepan to the Arizona Coyotes ahead of the draft. Though time has passed, there’s an awkwardness that comes with uttering the words “Derek Stepan, Arizona Coyote.”
While it doesn’t register as high on the bizarreness meter as “Patrick Ewing, Seattle SuperSonic,” “Joe Namath, Los Angeles Ram” or “Tom Seaver, Cincinnati Red,” it’s probably just a notch below “Andy Pettitte, Houston Astro.”
For an older generation of Rangers fans, seeing Brad Park and Jean Ratelle whirling around in Boston Bruins sweaters was a gut-wrenching experience. Same goes for a crop of younger fans who never quite got over the shock of Brian Leetch being traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs on his 36th birthday and his emotional return to Madison Square Garden as a member of the Bruins on March 20, 2006.
While Stepan was not on the level of Hall of Famers Park, Ratelle and Leetch, he was certainly a very good Ranger and a core member who contributed to an era of sustained success. The salary-cap era forces general managers into making tough calls. It will be strange not seeing Stepan and his grinning face occupying the stall near the entrance of the Rangers’ dressing room at MSG Training Center once training camp gets underway in September.
That’s because Stepan wove himself into the fabric of the Rangers and everything about him intrinsically fit the tone of the franchise. He was accountable in holding himself to a high standard, accountable to his teammates and was trusted by head coach Alain Vigneault to relay messages within the group.
Stepan never would hide from the media after a tough loss or when his performances dipped below his own expectations. Whether things were going well or not, Stepan spoke with honesty about himself and the team. He solemnly put the blame on himself following this spring’s second-round, Game 6 elimination to the Ottawa Senators.
“Individually, I’m disappointed and ashamed and flat-out embarrassed,” Stepan said then. “It kills me that I was not able to find my game.”
Maybe, those comments were an exaggeration in the heat of the moment after a disappointing playoff exit. Days later, as the team met the media for the last time before breaking for the summer, Stepan admitted that he was being tough on himself but conceded that his postseason play wasn’t where it needed to be.
“As I get away from it now, I’m not thrilled with the way I played,” Stepan said. “I was hard on myself. I wasn’t as bad as I said I was. I beat myself up pretty good about it. It certainly wasn’t my best. I’m not hiding behind anything. The more I pushed, it felt like I was in quicksand. The more I struggled, the faster I sank.”
Many fans get caught up in recency bias, and Stepan’s below-par final strides in a Rangers uniform could stick long in their memory. But he should be remembered as the fearless competitor who bravely returned to the 2014 Eastern Conference Final with his jaw wired shut after missing just one game following jaw surgery. Stepan scored twice in his return and played a key role in inspiring the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 20 years. He finished the playoffs on a liquid diet and well below his typical playing weight.
I’ll remember the time during the 2015-16 season when Stepan fiercely stood up for himself after being called out by a member of the media who had the gall to tell him, “How about you win a game?” during a tough December stretch. Verbal sparring ensued. The next day, teammates backed him up with black wiffle ball bats, emulating the Carolina Panthers intimidating New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham. It diffused the tension. Both player and reporter laughed off the bitterness that spilled over the game before.
There was a time when Stepan was a shy kid from Minnesota, but he quickly learned how to keep his guard up on the ice and how to handle New York pressure. As a 20-year-old in the 2010-11 season, he was the only Rangers rookie to play all 82 games. Then-head coach John Tortorella was tremendously demanding of his rookies. Though he burst onto the scene with a debut hat trick in Buffalo, Stepan proved he could meet Tortorella’s expectations fresh out of the University of Wisconsin.
His commitment and pride for representing the Rangers’ storied Original Six crest was obvious to anyone who observed him during his seven years in New York. Perhaps a little short on strength and speed, Stepan willed himself into becoming the best possible two-way center he could be. Young teammates gravitated to him, and he was accommodating to those who desired to pick his brain.
Now, he’ll have a chance to serve as a role model for a youthful Coyotes team that has missed the playoffs for five straight seasons. With former face of the franchise Shane Doan departed and without a captain entering training camp, Stepan could fill a key leadership role and set the tone for Arizona’s turnaround.
It’s going to be strange when Stepan returns to the Garden on Oct. 26 in the visiting white of the Coyotes. When Stepan signed on for six years and $39 million two summers ago, it was a contract that he earned every penny of. But hockey is a business – and most important is the business of winning. Sometimes, tough decisions need to be made in a salary-cap world.
Although his most recent playoff performances weren’t up to scratch, Stepan always drove himself with an intensity and commitment that matched the hustling nature of New Yorkers. He got what this franchise and city were about and was a very good Ranger indeed.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey