Derek Stepan’s Confident, Improved Two-Way Play Flying Under The Radar

It’s easy to forget about Derek Stepan after Ryan Callahan’s shootout winner, a bunch of stunning highlight-reel moves by Rick Nash, a number of vital saves by Henrik Lundqvist and an inexplicably squandered three-goal lead.

The drama of the Rangers’ 4-3 shootout win over the Bruins and a number of storylines have covered up something that deserves to be highlighted — Stepan’s acceleration toward developing into a complete two-way centerman.

Last season, it became clear how much Stepan improved on the defensive end as John Tortorella had the confidence use Stepan in defensive zone penalty kill situations.

One of the most frequent questions Rangers fans ask me is whether Stepan will put it all together.  I think he already has.  Maybe he won’t ever become a 70-point getter in a full season.  It’s hard to tell at this stage of his development, but the Rangers and particularly Tortorella like what they’re seeing out of Stepan.

“Step’s game has really grown on both sides of the puck.  I think he feels much more confident in his play,” Tortorella said after Sunday’s victory over the Lightning.

Stepan understands the shutdown game more than most players his age.  It was against the Lightning that Stepan really asserted himself by winning face-offs against Steven Stamkos and playing a big part in keeping the high-powered Cory Conacher-Stamkos-Martin St. Louis line quiet on Sunday.

Against the Bruins on Tuesday, Stepan won some important face-offs against Bruins’ centers that are better on the draw than Stamkos including all-world face-off man Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci.  Winning a late third period defensive zone face-off against Bergeron is something Stepan can really hang his hat on.

Stepan’s second period goal was further evidence of his growing maturity.  He alertly leaped on Milan Lucic’s neutral zone turnover and beat Tuukka Rask with a well-placed 29-foot wrist shot.

Some Rangers fans have suggested Glen Sather should the panic button and dangles Stepan in talks to try to lure Ryan O’Reilly from the Colorado Avalanche.  It’s easy to forget that Stepan is still just 22 and already has 176 NHL games under his belt.

I think Stepan has a bit offensive more upside than O’Reilly.  There’s a lot of room for Stepan to grow offensively and defensively.  At this stage of his progress at 22, the Rangers are pleased with what they’re getting out of their former 51st overall draft pick.

You can follow Sean on Twitter — @HartnettHockey.

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