Of all the players brought in by Coyotes GM John Chayka during draft week, the top-line center from New York might be the most influential in his club’s lineup.
27-year-old Derek Stepan will play for a team not named the New York Rangers for the first time in his career next season, but has instantly become one of the most important players on his new team in Arizona.
A seven-year veteran, Stepan brings a truckload of qualities, both measurable and intangible, to the top of the Coyotes’ lineup, giving the franchise the bonafide number one center they have spent years searching for.
As the de facto replacement for long-time first-liner Martin Hanzal, Stepan will bring a different style of play to the position than his Czech predecessor. Where Hanzal used size and strength to win the puck off of face-offs and board battles, Stepan utilizes much quicker skating and puck handling to dictate the flow of a shift.
Back in Dave Tippet’s early days as coach of the Coyotes, Hanzal was a perfect fit for the “dump and chase” strategy his head coach employed. The 6-foot-6 center could track the puck down in the corner, get it to linemate Ray Whitney, and let “The Wizard” either find Radim Vrbata or create a scoring chance of his own.
In today’s faster NHL however, Hanzal’s impact waned, while Stepan stepped into the spotlight.
On the Ice
In his first three years with the Rangers, Stepan failed to miss a single game and steadily improved his production each year. After a 45-point rookie season in 2010-11 and a 51-point campaign the following year, Stepan collected 44 points in the shortened 48-game lockout year of 2012-13 (prorated for 75 points over 82 games).
Thanks to his early success, it did not take long for Stepan to become New York’s top option at center. He has recorded the best points-per-game ratio among Ranger centers every season since 2011-12, tallying at least 53 points in each of the last four seasons.
While playing a far less physical brand of hockey, Stepan has been an offensive catalyst while also being an adequate shot suppresser. In each of the last three seasons, his Corsi percentage and relative Corsi percentage have risen (meaning his team usually has a positive shot differential when he is on the ice), showcasing his reliability in the defensive zone in addition to his strengths in the attacking end.
Stepan’s presence will also allow the Coyotes to play with more fluidity on their top line. After a scorching hot start to their rookie seasons, the tandem of Max Domi and Anthony Duclair has cooled off as opponents have focused on shutting them down. Stepan can be the perfect remedy to this problem: If teams press Domi with the puck, the crafty winger will have Stepan as an outlet who can score on his own or control play in the offensive zone. Stepan can also lug the puck into the final third of the ice on his own, handling pressure and letting his wingers penetrate high scoring areas before finding them with a pass.
Off the Ice
Off the ice, Stepan has proven to be a leader, a quality that surely wasn’t lost on John Chayka as he tries to fill both voids on the roster and in the locker room. Despite being one of the youngest members of the Rangers’ perennial playoff core, Stepan was named an alternate captain of the team before the 2014 season at just 24 years old.
The American’s combination of speed, vision, and skill with the puck can transform the Coyotes’ offense from an old-fashioned plan of puck retrieval to a modern masterpiece of movement both in possession and away from the puck, while his apparent leadership characteristics will be key in guiding a young roster on the ice and from the bench.
He won’t dominate the faceoff dot or come close to delivering 100 hits in a season the way Hanzal did before him, but the Coyotes’ newest tool might unlock the potential of the young wingers he will play between and give the franchise the offensive punch and consistent top-of-the-lineup scoring they’ve lacked for too long.