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Derek Stepan: His Strengths and Supporting Casts

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With Stepan coming into the Coyotes line up, we take a look at his past numbers to see where he could land in Arizona.

NHL: New York Rangers at Minnesota Wild
What is the best way to fit Stepan in with the Coyotes?
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

As most of the hockey world knows, the Coyotes are going to look pretty different this upcoming season, as they’ve made a few trades and will have some rookies coming into the fold. The move that will likely have the most impact is them acquiring Derek Stepan (along with goaltender Antti Raanta) from the New York Rangers right before the draft.

On the surface, Stepan looks like a perfect fit for the Coyotes. He is a capable top-six center who can more than handle his own weight on the top line, filling the void Martin Hanzal left. Having a veteran like him on the roster to soak up the tougher minutes should also benefit rookies Christian Dvorak and Dylan Strome so they can slide into more sheltered, scoring roles.

The big question going into the year is what is the best way to use Stepan and who the Coyotes can pair him with to get the most out of him. To do this, we’ll dive into some statistics to get an overview of his play, breakdown which areas of the game he exceeds at and where he might need help. First, we’ll look at some basic stats to get an overview of how Stepan did last year and what he brings to the table, then we’ll dig a little deeper.

Stats on Stats

Stepan’s 2016-17 Stats

CF/A = Corsi For/Against, GF/A = Goals For/Against, SCF/A = Scoring Chances For/Against
stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick

On a basic level, Stepan looks pretty good as both a driver of possession and scoring chances, which should be a big help for Arizona. New York wasn’t a great possession team last year either and Stepan was one of the few players who could consistently tilt play in the right direction. In addition to this, we can look at some contextual visualizations on Micah Blake McCurdy’s HockeyViz site to see how Stepan performed with certain linemates & how he was deployed.

Here, we can see that Stepan got top-line deployment, saw a lot of the opposition’s top-six, helped the Rangers create shots from dangerous locations while he was on the ice & had a pretty good defensive impact, as well. Basically, Stepan looks like a perfect replacement for Hanzal as the tough-minute/top-line center. From a possession standpoint, the two should have a similar impact.

Where Stepan should be an upgrade is his offensive upside. Both he and Hanzal are coming off down years for their standards, but Stepan still produced at a top-six rate of 1.68 points per 60 minutes at five-on-five and has scored much higher in year’s past. He’s also a different type of player in how he creates his offense, as Stepan is more of a playmaker compared to Hanzal, who did most of his work in front of the net & winning pucks in the corners. So, the skill sets are different, but Stepan should have a similar impact with some added offensive potential.

We can take this a step further by looking at how exactly Stepan drives possession & offense through data from Ryan Stimson’s Passing Project. Data from this project is created by tracking the last three passes before a shot attempt along with the location and type of pass each player made. Through this, we can look at which players are driving possession and creating passes that lead to more dangerous shots. It’s a way to see which players shine as play-drivers and who is setting up more quality chances. Stepan grades well in both of these areas. Ryan Stimson and his volunteers have been tracking these stats for the previous two seasons and I have all of the Rangers’ season tracked, so we have a pretty decent sample size to work with.

Possession

As to be expected, Stepan is above the forward average for the Rangers in almost every category. He was one of their best possession drivers, so him being among the team leaders in plays & passes that lead to shots is to be expected. Taking it a step further, we can look at the type of shots & plays Stepan is creating.

Playmaking

Stretch = Stretch Pass, Home Plate = Passes that cross the middle of the slot, Behind Net = Passes from behind the net, High Danger = Home Plate and Behind Net passes, NZ/DZ = Passes from the neutral and defensive zones

This gives us an idea of how versatile Stepan is as a playmaker. He exceeded at sparking the Rangers offense when it came to transitional play (stretch passes and Neutral Zone/Defensive Zone assists) and creating dangerous shots. This is most evident in the behind the net category. Through Stimson’s work, we know that passes that come from behind the net lead to higher percentage shots, so Stepan thriving in this area is good news for the Coyotes. The downside is that Stepan is also prone to throw the play back to the point a fair bit, which leads to lower quality chances, but he is still pretty versatile as a playmaker and can make a lot of lines better.

Fitting in With the Coyotes

We know Stepan is a good player, but who would be the best fit for him on the Coyotes roster? In New York, he spent most of his time with the likes of Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello while also spending some time centering Rick Nash & Jimmy Vesey. He’s going to see a downgrade in talent on the wings, but Arizona has some interesting options.

For instance, do you pair him with a playmaker like Max Domi and have them feed off each other, or would he work best with a volume shooter like Brendan Perlini? You also have a few rookies like Clayton Keller & Christian Fischer that might be a good fit if they can handle the tougher assignments.

The nice thing about Stepan is that he can probably slide into whatever role suits him on his line, which is backed up by data from the Passing Project. A couple months ago, Ryan Stimson used the data from this to break players into different categories based on which skills they exceed at. Stepan grades out pretty well in this area.

Viz courtesy of Ryan Stimson. Make your own here

Here, Stepan is a categorized as a playmaker but he also rated pretty high as a volume shooter and looks like a pretty balanced player, offensively. Remember, this is using data from the last two seasons, which includes a 22-goal campaign in 2015-16, so pairing him with someone like Domi may not be a bad idea.

Plus, there’s some potential for more rush goals with Stepan being a right-shot, setting up the left-handed Domi or Perlini. Adding that with Stepan’s ability to work the puck behind the goal line and set up dangerous shots, the Coyotes should have a decent line here. They don’t have a Kreider or a Zuccarello on their team, but they have a few players who can compliment Stepan’s skill set.

The one area where Stepan lacks here is getting the play up ice, as he ranks lower in both transitional play and building up offense, showing that he needs some help from linemates. This is going to be the biggest challenge for Arizona when it comes to finding the right linemates with Stepan. Another stat that I’ve been tracking over the last few years is zone entries, which has a pretty large impact on a team’s ability to win the shot battle.

Through studies done by Eric Tulsky, we know that entries done with possession lead to more shots than entries done by dumping the puck in. This is something the Rangers seemed to thrive on last year, scoring a lot of goals off the rush. Based on the data I tracked for this past season, Stepan wasn’t a big part of the Rangers neutral zone play.

Stepan played a minimal and conservative role in the neutral zone last year, not handling the puck there much and dumping the puck on 41.5% of his entries. It’s a little surprising given how much the Rangers thrived off the transitional play, but keep in mind, he had a couple of very creative players on his wings in Kreider and Zuccarello. If I’m coaching a team, I would probably want one of those two getting the puck over the blue line while letting Stepan drive the middle lane or making himself a passing option. The Rangers also ran a fair number of retrieval plays with this line, relying on Kreider (or Nash, depending on who he was playing with) to get to the puck first and then going from there. Not too different from some of the plays Radim Vrbata started over the years.

Coyotes Possibilities

It’s possible that Stepan might have had to handle some defensive responsibility with getting the puck out of the zone, so the opportunities to carry the puck in may not have been there. Still, he played a pretty small role there and having guys on the wings who can carry the puck in with speed will be necessary to make this line work. He was money in the offensive zone, but he isn’t the fastest skater and the Coyotes will need to compliment him with someone who adds that element and take some pressure off him handling the puck.

We’ll look into who some potential winger options in a future post, but there are some intriguing names on the roster that might be a good fit. I mentioned Domi and Perlini as a couple earlier, but even someone like Tobias Rieder might be an option if you’re going to have Stepan’s line soak up most of the heavy minutes. Again, there are some decent options to work with.

Stepan will have a lot on his plate this year with how much Arizona invested in him, and he is a nice fit for a team with a young core looking to take the next step. He’s nearing the end of his prime and should hold the fort down on the first line until the likes of Strome/Dvorak/Keller are ready to take over and give them some stability at the top of the lineup while the team is in a transitional phase. The Coyotes just have to make sure to give him the right support cast.