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Column | New York Rangers should not trade Derek Stepan

OTTAWA, ON - APRIL 29: New York Rangers Center Derek Stepan (21) can't beat Ottawa Senators Goalie Craig Anderson (41) during the second period of game 2 of the second round of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs between the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators on April 29, 2017, at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, On.(Photo by Jason Kopinski/Icon Sportswire)
Jason Kopinski/Icon Sportswire

The buyout of stalwart defenseman Dan Girardi signaled a change – the New York Rangers are redesigning their core. This group has features players like Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, Derek Stepan, Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh, Henrik Lundqvist and, for 11 years, Dan Girardi.

Pieces of their core were traded or lost to free agency in recent seasons, like Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle, and Brandon Dubinsky. After Girardi’s departure, the question stands how much more of the core the Rangers intend to shed this offseason. Rumors have been swirling around one member of the Rangers core in particular: Derek Stepan.

Stepan, who turned 27 Sunday, is in the midst of his six-year, $39 million contract ($6.5 million salary cap hit). After being drafted 51st overall in 2008 and making his NHL debut in 2010-11, Stepan has been an integral part of the Blueshirts for seven years.

He has played 515 regular-season games and accumulated 360 points (128 goals, 232 assists). And in 97 playoff games he has earned 49 points (19 goals, 30 assists) – and at least one goal engraved in Rangers playoff history.

This season Stepan scored 55 points (17 goals, 38 assists) in 81 regular-season games. Twenty-three of those points were primary points (1.25 per 60) – 14 of which were primary assists (0.76 per 60, the second highest on the team behind Zuccarello’s 0.88).

Other highlights that showed how he thrived on both sides of the ice include his 40 takeaways and 50.75 Corsi for percentage (ranked third on offense), which demonstrated his ability to contribute to the Rangers’ shot attempts for and limit those against. Additionally, with Stepan on the ice the Rangers generated more scoring chances for and suppressed those against (53.56 scoring chances for percentage). Stepan’s on ice expected goals for percentage (53.42) also ranked favorably (third highest on offense) and he had the best goals for percentage on the team (59.49).

In the Rangers’ 12 postseason games, he scored six points (two goals, four assists). Although it was not Stepan’s best playoff performance, he still had strong aspects of his game – like a 63.33 Corsi for per 60 that ranked highest on the team and a 2.62 expected goals for per 60. Plus, he was a key part of one of the Rangers’ strongest lines in the postseason with Jimmy Vesey and Rick Nash (highest Corsi for per 60 of 65.48 and third lowest Corsi against per 60 of 59.69).

After providing the Rangers with consistency down the middle of their first line (in which he has scored close to 50 points in each of his seven seasons), the question stands: Why the Rangers would look to move him now, especially after dealing Derick Brassard last season?

The Rangers believed they did not have a clear first- and second-line center, but rather a “1A” in Stepan and “1B” in Brassard. With more than $11 million in cap space dedicated to their two centers, the Rangers decided to move one. They contemplated moving Stepan then, but ultimately traded Brassard to the Ottawa Senators for a younger and less expensive option in Mika Zibanejad ($2.625 million cap hit).

Now in this offseason, these rumors have reemerged all circulating around Stepan. With the Rangers already buying out Girardi, a heart-and-soul player that was a part of this team for 11 years, trading Stepan becomes more than just a faint possibility.

But why trade Stepan, a consistent performer and key piece of their core?

If the Rangers are considering trading Stepan, now would be the time as he has a no-trade clause that kicks in on July 1 and remains for two seasons, then turns into a modified no-trade clause in 2019-20.

As it stands, the Rangers have a projected cap hit of $61,636,111, not counting their pending free agents. Another $2.9 million would come off of their cumulative cap hit if Kevin Klein retires from the NHL. With the cap being set at $75 million for next season, the Rangers have even more cap space. Even without moving Stepan, the Rangers should have enough cap space to re-sign their players and potentially acquire more (either through free agency or trades) to improve their defense. Additionally, the Rangers can anticipate more cap relief in a year when Nash’s $7.8 million hit comes off the cap.

Even when considering Zibanjead’s next contract, having him and Stepan as the top two centers is not unreasonable – assuming he signs a contract with a cap hit in the $4-5 million range. Again, this would put the Rangers at a cumulative cap hit of approximately $11 million between their top two centers, but throughout the league there are a number of teams with much more than $11 million in cap space dedicated to their top two centers.

The Anaheim Ducks, Chicago Blackhawks, and Los Angeles Kings both have more than $15 million dedicated to their top two centers (Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler in Anaheim; Jonathan Toews and Artem Anisimov in Chicago; Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter in Los Angeles). The Boston Bruins have more than $14 million cap space spent on theirs, too (Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci).

With Stepan’s $6.5 million cap hit and 24-year-old Zibanejad’s new contract, the Rangers’ top two centers’ cumulative cap space will likely be similar to the Detroit Red Wings (who have 36-year-old Henrik Zetterberg’s cap hit of $6.083 million and 33-year-old Frans Nielsen’s cap hit of $5.25 million) or the Winnipeg Jets ($6.125 million cap hit of 24-year-old Mark Scheifele and $4.7 million cap hit of 29-year-old Bryan Little).

The above chart depicts the 2016-17 cumulative cap hits of teams’ top two centers – not included are teams with centers on their entry-level contracts and teams that were not consistent in the first two centers they deployed. Also, the San Jose Sharks’ top two centers are Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture for the purposes of this chart, since Joe Thornton ($6.75 million cap hit, pending unrestricted free agent) played on the wing for much of the season.

By comparing to other teams top two centers, having Stepan under contract with a $6.5 million cap hit and Zibanejad with a cap hit between $4 and $5 million is not unrealistic or too inflated – especially when considering a number of these teams’ numbers will increase soon as well when their contracts expire (Tyler Johnson and Evgeny Kuznetsov are pending restricted free agents. The contracts of Little, John Tavares, Mikko Koivu, Mikael Backlund, Paul Stastny, Kyle Turris, and Henrik Sedin all expire after next season).

Regardless of the salary cap implications of Stepan’s contract, the even more pressing issue for a team looking to contend for the Stanley Cup, is whether Stepan is expendable.

If the Rangers traded Stepan, who becomes the first-line center? The obvious answer is Zibanejad, but the Rangers still question whether or not he is ready to take on that role. Even head coach Alain Vigneault questioned that after their season.

Behind Stepan and Zibanejad, the Rangers primarily had Kevin Hayes and Oscar Lindberg down the center. Neither Hayes nor Lindberg have shown that they could fulfill Stepan’s role though. If Zibanejad were New York’s first line center, finding a fourth center via trade or free agency would be necessary because the AHL team is shallow at center as well.

Could the Rangers trade Stepan for another center? Yes. Is there another available that is comparable to him, though, to either take on his role or Zibanejad’s on the second line?

Through a trade, the Rangers could find a replacement center. Alex Galchenyuk could slot into the Rangers’ second line, but the concern could be that the Montreal Canadiens have stunted his development. Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene are both rumored to be available, and either could fit as the Rangers’ first-line center, but both seem like long-shots in exchange for Stepan.

Another option could be trading Stepan to help fulfill the Rangers’ greatest need – defensemen – then pursing a center in free agency. Or the Rangers could trade Stepan for prospects and draft picks to help build for the future, and acquire a center in free agency for right now. Someone like Joe Thornton, if he does not re-sign with the Sharks, could be a good fit, or a depth center like Brian Boyle to slot behind Zibanejad and Hayes on the top two lines.

Stepan plays an effective two-way game that is not so easily replaceable – nor are his leadership qualities. He will only be 30 when the final season of his contract concludes in 2020-21 (technically 31 when the contract expires July 1, 2021). Finding a younger center who won’t demand a higher salary (based on the current or future market), and can play Stepan’s two-way game would be a challenge.

Which raises the question: Should the Rangers be gambling with Stepan as a trade chip or do they have more replaceable options?

This season, the Rangers displayed depth – Nash, Kreider, Stepan, J.T. Miller, Michael Grabner, Pavel Buchnevich, Vesey, Matt Puempel, and Jesper Fast. In addition, they have forwards in the AHL like Robin Kovacs, Cristoval Nieves, Nicklas Jensen, and Marek Hrivik that could replace a winger if necessary. Plus, there are a number of low-risk options they could acquire through free agency.

Maybe, instead of dangling Stepan to teams, the Rangers should consider moving a player like Miller. Miller is in the final year of his two-year, $5.5 million bridge deal and is certainly going to look for a long-term contract after this that will likely be costly. Not only could Miller cost the Rangers more in the future, but he likely could bring in a high return than Stepan. A defenseman, like Josh Manson or Jacob Trouba, could probably be more easily acquired with a younger trade chip like Miller (however, New York might have to offer more to get either of those defensemen). He is a key scorer for the Rangers but might be more replaceable than Stepan, a two-way center that plays in every situation.

Lastly, there’s the expansion draft to consider. The Rangers are already at risk of losing one center in Lindberg. Without readily available forward depth in the minors, they might have to search for two two-way centers that are important facets of the penalty kill if the Vegas Golden Knights draft Lindberg.

The Rangers clearly feel the pressure of building a contender in front of goaltender Lundqvist, as evidenced by general manager Jeff Gorton buying out Girardi. But how willing is he to dismantle the rest of the core, and would that actually improve their chances at the Stanley Cup? Moving Stepan might seem like a simple answer – especially after his last playoff performance­ ­­– but it might prove to be short-sighted.

The goal of the Rangers front office is to improve their chances to win a Stanley Cup. But some problems should be prioritized first, like the defense, and moving Stepan might not remedy them – rather, it might create problems elsewhere that the Rangers are not prepared to solve.

*All data is at 5v5, via Corsica.hockey. Salary cap data via CapFriendly.

 

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