Just a note before I head off to practice again (geez, will they ever play this series?). We are planning to do a Live Playoff Chat Thursday at 11:30 a.m. So plan to be there. Or else. Hopefully it will be the first of many.
In the meantime, as you probably guessed based on my interviews Tuesday, I wrote a story on Derek Stepan for The Journal News and LoHud.com.
Here it is:
By Rick Carpiniello
GREENBURGH — It sounded kind of crazy when the words came out of John Tortorella’s mouth Saturday — not that you don’t expect the occasional baloney from the Rangers coach.
On a team with Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Callahan and Rick Nash, there was Tortorella at the end of the regular season calling Derek Stepan the club’s most important player.
Maybe he is that, maybe he isn’t. It would be a tough argument to make against Lundqvist, the team’s MVP, or against Captain Callahan, or Nash, the newcomer and most dangerous player.
But Stepan, except for a slow start, has easily been more consistent than any of those players, and he plays in all situations — and his penalty-killing duty became extremely crucial after the Rangers lost so many PK-duty regulars in the summer.
All the 22-year-old center did in the lockout shortened season was A) replace Brad Richards as the team’s No. 1 center; B) make every winger who played with him better; C) lead the team in scoring (18 goals, 26 assists, 44 points and a +25 rating) and D) prove to be one of the team’s best defensive forwards.
“I think he has evolved,” Tortorella said Monday. “He struggled early. He was penciled in to be our No. 2 center. I was worried if he could handle that coming into this year. He has been our No. 1 center as he has evolved into it, and I am totally confident that he is going to be able to handle all the things going into this playoff series.”
The playoff series against Washington, which begins Thursday in D.C. — and whatever happens beyond, if anything, will go a long way toward defining Stepan at this young age. Because he has struggled in the postseason, going without a point in a five-game loss to the Capitals two seasons ago, and scoring a single goal (albeit a huge goal) in 20 playoff games last spring.
“Playoffs have never been my strong point,” Stepan said, before trailing off into his humble team-speak, when the I becomes we, when questions about himself become answers about the group.
He did allow that he learned a lot from the Rangers’ run to the Eastern final last spring.
“You’ve been through it once now and you understand how you’ve got to carry yourself and you get that aspect of it,” Stepan said. “But every playoffs is new and it’s exciting and it’s going to have a different feel to it.
“It doesn’t mean anything. It’s a new year, a new playoffs. You learn from it and you move on. … You just learn how you need to play in a playoff series, what it takes to play in a playoff series, what atmospheres are like in a playoff series — all the things that it takes to win playoff games, how you handle yourself when you win one, how you handle yourself when you lose one, all that stuff adds up.
Like his numbers added up. He had points in 12 of the final 14 games of the season, and had 15 goals and 35 points the last 30, all of which must have a cash register ringing in his agent’s head. Stepan, making $875,000 this year, will be a restricted free agent July 1.
“He’s prepared,” Tortorella said. “He does a lot of work and that’s an intangible that he has that some players don’t, as far as being prepared for all situations. I think that has helped him in his confidence and it keeps on growing.”
That’s the difference between Stepan and, say, Chris Kreider or J.T. Miller. Or the difference between, even, Stepan — who made it directly to the NHL out of college and scored a hat trick in his first game — and Michael Del Zotto or Ryan McDonagh or even Callahan, who did play minor hockey first.
“Yeah, some of the other kids don’t get it,” Tortorella said. “They will eventually. I think they’ll be taught. But Step had that right away and you could see that right away when he first came to us. I think that progresses players quicker. I mean, he’s a 22-year-old guy that I use in every freakin’ situation. And he’s a guy, as I’ve said, I was worried about him being our No. 2 center going into the year. He’s proven to all of us that he’s taken a huge step this year.”
The pun was not intended.