Why You Move Derek Stepan for Rick Nash
I have been watching the National Hockey League for over 40 years and even a non-professional like me can identify who may be a special talent and who, despite his youth, and ability to make an occasional “wow” pass, is merely an ordinary player and will probably never rise above that. Such a player, I believe, is Derek Stepan. Conversely, McDonagh and Kreider are indeed unique talents, whose departures should not be considered in exchange for anybody.
One example of my talent assessment: I knew the Rangers would rue trading Tony Amonte for Matteau and Noonan, despite Matteau’s critical role in helping the Blueshirts win the Cup in 1994. Considering Matteau’s performance for a one month stretch, perhaps one could claim the trade was worthwhile, as it brought Matteau to the Broadway stage and our team to the Canyon of Heroes, but Amonte became a perennial all-star and one of the game’s most electrifying players for the next decade and beyond.
In watching Stepan for the past two years, I see an average skater with above-average vision on the ice and the ability to thread a needle with a beautiful pass. Two instances in this past post-season come to mind. The first was his pass to Kreider from the right boards in Game 6 vs. Ottawa, a game the Rangers absolutely had to have. The second was in the first game vs. Washington as he sent Kreider into the Caps zone in alone on Holtby. Kreider, using his uniquely quick release, scored on both of those pretty passes. No question, two great clutch plays by Stepan.
Unfortunately, the Derek Stepan Rangers fans see much more frequently is a center who loses more faceoffs than he wins and doesn’t win many puck battles along the boards, even trying to avoid mucking for the puck at times. He lacks speed and offensive tenacity. Worse yet, too frequently he disappears on the ice for prolonged periods during a game.
If Derek Stepan is the player who is the so-called deal breaker in the Rangers being able to acquire Rick Nash, Glen Sather is making a huge mistake. Nash would give the Rangers the power forward they sorely need to open up the ice for his linemates. Being continually outfought by the Devils for puck possession through most of the Conference Finals series, Nash, using his size and grit, would win many of those crucial possession battles. And what about the idea of the Rangers having a big forward who can go to the net, not easily get pushed away from the slot and knows how to score from that area of the ice? A dimension to their attack the Blueshirts really haven’t had since Adam Graves was in his prime.
Statistics can be maneuvered and manipulated and it is important for a true contending team to be good up the middle, as it is in baseball. What would the Rangers be left with sans Stepan? Richards, a consensus No. 1 center (when he’s not trying to be the center of “renude” attention before the camera); Anisimov, a good two-way center who probably lacks Stepan’s puck passing ability but plays a better all-around game; Boyle, at his best, a well above-average defensive center and a big force around the net who can excel in nearly all facets of the game but has yet to show consistency; and the recently acquired Jeff Halpern, still a good fourth-line center and one of the better faceoff men in the NHL.
Assuming the two forwards the Rangers trade for Nash would be Dubinsky and Stepan, here are the four lines the Rangers would present once Gaborik becomes healthy enough to play. Going from left to right:
1) Hagelin, Richards, Gaborik
2) Kreider, Anisimov, Nash
3) Pyatt, Boyle, Callahan
4) Asham, Halpern, Rupp
I believe this combination of forwards makes the Rangers a significantly more formidable offensive team than they were last season, and they lose nothing defensively without Stepan. And we cannot discount the possibility that some prospect, who until now needed more seasoning, may be NHL ready. So, c’mon, Slats, you can acquire one of the top forwards in the league and put your team in the position of being a leading contender for the Cup, even if it means losing a Step.