Derek Stepan. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
New York Rangers center Derek Stepan will miss four-to-six weeks with broken ribs, and the Blueshirts are going to miss his two-way ability. Stepan was relied upon as an all-situations player, and he’s not easily replaced. The most likely scenario will see coach Alain Vigneault use a number of players to fill the hole left by Stepan.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault announced Monday that Stepan, who missed the third period of Friday’s matinee against the Bruins, will be out four-to-six weeks due to two broken ribs, and the Rangers subsequently recalled Jayson Megna from the Hartford Wolf Pack. But with Stepan out for more than a month, the Rangers, who just snapped a three-game skid, are going to need someone to step up and fill the second-line center role.
Aside from the obvious loss of one of the team’s leaders, the Rangers will be hard done by without Stepan because he’s an all-situations player. Stepan averages the fourth-highest ice time on the club, but not because of his contributions at even strength. Rather, he plays the third-most power play time per outing of any Rangers forward and is a second-unit penalty killer for Vigneault. Replacing that two-way ability isn’t easy, so the most likely scenario is the Rangers find a way to use a platoon to fill in for Stepan.
In the second game without Stepan, the Rangers’ 4-3 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, the second line was a unit centred by rookie Oscar Lindberg, with Chris Kreider and Jesper Fast flanking the rookie pivot. That line, or some combination of it, played close to 10 minutes together Monday night and was able to produce two goals. But offense hasn’t been a big concern, and Stepan’s loss won’t impact the Rangers’ ability to score near as much as he will New York’s ability on their own side of center.
Stepan’s absence leaves the Rangers without a sturdy two-way center in their top-six. His line helped compliment the star power of the Derick Brassard, Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello top unit. With Stepan out, however, it appears most of the defensive zone minutes and starts are going to be heaped onto Dominic Moore’s line, where he skates with off-season acquisitions Emerson Etem and Jarret Stoll.
Moore played more than half of the shorthanded minutes for the Rangers Monday night, and he figures to have even more defensive responsibility heaped upon him with Stepan out. When it came to zone starts Monday, Moore and Stoll took more than 10 of their starts in the defensive zone and combined for just three in the offensive zone.
The heavy slant of defensive zone starts for that duo was also seen in Saturday’s 3-0 shutout loss to Philadelphia. Vigneault used them as the prime shutdown guys, and while they don’t bring the offensive prowess of a Stepan, it allows for Moore and Stoll to win a faceoff, get the puck out and hit the bench in favor of the offensive stars.
One player lost in the shuffle, though, was J.T. Miller. Against the Hurricanes, Miller played less than nine minutes and didn’t get a single second of special teams time. He did get a look on the power play Saturday, but was nowhere to be found on any of the Rangers’ four man advantages against Carolina. The 22-year-old center is coming off of a year in which he notched 10 goals and 23 points in 58 games and he’s on a similar pace in 2014-15. Having him contribute offensively would surely help ease the pain of losing Stepan, but he might need to have a few games to get acclimated to second-line duty.
Six weeks is a long time without Stepan, and in order to stay atop the Metropolitan Division, the Rangers are going to need to find a fix for being without Stepan, especially with the Washington Capitals just one point back of the division lead.