There’s no underselling the importance of Derek Stepan to the Rangers. He’s their number one center, and was that last year defensively, even with Brad Richards still on the roster. He was a 2014 U.S. Olympian, and when Brandon Prust broke his jaw in the Eastern Conference Final, it was enough to erase any fond feelings left for the former Ranger.
The Twitter panic after Stepan went down with a fractured fibula was warranted. Stepan plays harder minutes than Brassard does or Richards did, while putting up more points per 60. Defensively at 5v5, he is much more complete than Brassard. J.T. Miller would have likely made the team before Stepan’s injury, but now he’s a lock out of necessity. What’s unlikely is Alain Vigneault throwing him into Stepan’s spot before he shows he can be trusted with it. The Rangers do have other centers on their roster: Kevin Hayes will make the team, probably, or Matthew Lombardi, possibly, but there’s no way to frame this as ideal.
The logical conclusion, which popped up on Twitter as soon as it was announced Stepan was injured, is Derick Brassard, first line center. No one really said it was a good idea, but the Rangers are thin down the middle; you make do with what you have.
We’ve gotten some more facts since then– the exact nature of the injury, plus a timeline for return of 4-6 weeks. It’s thankfully still the preseason. Worst-case scenario, Stepan misses a month. The Rangers aren’t in a great spot, but it’s the best of a bad situation.
(I did see a lot of people, especially Lightning bloggers, suggest that without Stepan for any period of time, the Rangers are a lotto team, and Tampa’s really going to enjoy that top pick in the McDavid lottery. This is just a reminder that the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist were absolutely putrid until December- take it from someone who both stayed up all night to watch that one game against the Sharks and took her mother to MSG to watch them lose 4-1 to Carter Hutton and the Nashville Predators. After all that, second in the division and a Stanley Cup Final appearance felt damn good).
The Metro division is better this year. The Rangers will be facing an improved Islanders team and a Devils team led by Cory Schneider instead of Martin Brodeur in October, as well as other divisional rivals in the Blue Jackets and Hurricanes, and yet, a few weeks without Stepan could be manageable, if not ideal.
Here’s the solution: first-line center Dominic Moore.
I know what you’re thinking– the Rangers could totally kidnap Brad Richards when they play their preseason game this week against Chicago, Zuccarello would be a great getaway driver– but there’s some precedent to this already. When Stepan’s jaw was broken, Moore filled in for him, though only for a little while– it being the playoffs, Stepan got a plate in his jaw, got back out there, and played some hockey. Moore is used to playing defensive minutes, with an offensive ZS% of barely 25% last season. Nash and Kreider were deployed against other teams’ top lines, facing a harder Corsi QoC than any forwards other than Martin St. Louis, who of course joined the Rangers only at the trade deadline. With them, Moore would enjoy better zone starts, though he would play against harder competition than he did previously.
It’s likely that Vigneault will want to continue sheltering Brassard and Zuccarello’s line, with the hopes that their offensive production will help carry the team. Moore is certainly a step back offensively from Stepan, with 1.08 points/60 at even strength, compared to Stepan’s 1.83 p/60. However, I would argue that Stepan’s defensive ability will be a greater loss to the top line. Moore would be playing with both Nash and Kreider, who can and should be expected to produce, especially as Nash has said he’s recovered from his concussion, and Kreider hopefully will continue to break out offensively. Henrik Lundqvist will be himself, and can help keep games close– a lot to ask of a goalie, but something he’s done many times before. Moving Moore up is a short-term solution, but it’s a better one than throwing Brassard or Miller there and hoping for the best.
The Rangers may still do something else. Maybe they’ll move Chris Kreider back to his natural center, or maybe they’ll make a trade for Tyler Bozak and answer the collective prayers of Leafs Twitter. But with Stepan’s prognosis better than expected, and Dominic Moore able to take on tough minutes until Stepan is better, they likely don’t have to.