When the New York Rangers drafted Derek Stepan in the second round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, they believed they were selecting a player who, down the road, could be a very good two-way centerman.
What they didn't know was that he’d become the team’s first choice at center ice less than five years later.
Stepan has impressed since the first time he took the ice as a Ranger. In his first game, he recorded a hat trick against the Buffalo Sabres. It was a suitable start to an impressive rookie campaign in which he registered 21 goals and 24 assists for 45 points.
The following season he improved, scoring 51 points, but his lone goal and subpar performance in 20 playoff games left much to be desired. Despite consistent defensive play, his offensive struggles carried over into 2013. He didn't score his first goal until the eighth game of the season.
But since then, Stepan has run rampant over any and all competition. His sound neutral zone-play, which has allowed him to force turnovers and create offense from them, along with his improved shooting ability, have allowed him to score 36 points in the last 39 games.
Oh, and playing with Rick Nash hasn't hurt, either.
The two of them have been the team’s primary source of offense for nearly all of 2013. What’s even more impressive is that, even when they’re separated, Stepan continues to produce.
Now, the reason I bring up all these offensive numbers is because a solid statistical campaign is imperative to any player winning the Frank J. Selke Trophy, awarded to the “forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game.”
It has not, at least recently, been awarded to any player who recorded less than 40 points in an 82-game regular season.
And it’s that fact that adds to my belief that Stepan could have a legitimate shot at getting a nomination for the prestigious award that’s been won by the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Rod Brind’Amour, Steve Yzerman, Ron Francis and Bob Gainey.
Stepan is known throughout the league as a two-way forward, and his proficiency in the defensive aspect of the game is well-documented. Since joining the club in 2010-11, he’s been a mainstay on the Rangers’ penalty kill because of his work ethic, willingness to sacrifice his body and defensive positioning.
Beyond that, he is at times, a wizard in the neutral zone. His ability to read plays and create turnovers not only ends an opponent’s attacks, but his decision- and play-making abilities allow him to quickly turn defense into offense.
His voracious forechecking and quick stick also help create turnovers deep in the offensive zone. This may be the most important aspect of Stepan’s defensive game because, in the current Rangers system, most scoring opportunities are created by forecheck-induced turnovers.
In terms of defense, I think Stepan is among the most responsible forwards in the league. Furthermore, I also believe he is as good, if not better, defensively than a player like Ryan Kesler, who won the award in 2010-11.
The fact that he has been able to put up almost a point-per-game offensive numbers this season only furthers the need for him to be in the conversation.
But what makes this trophy so hard to win is that there’s an elite cast of defensively responsible forwards who bring it every year.
Pavel Datsyuk won the award three consecutive times from 2008-10. Patrice Bergeron, last year’s winner, is another one who’s always in the conversation, and his strong play this season means he’s all but locked up another nomination.
Another player who will no doubt pick up a considerable amount of votes this year is Jonathan Toews. The Chicago Blackhawks' captain has not only had a superb defensive season, but he’s also producing at over a point-per-game pace.
It’s highly unlikely that Stepan would take home the Selke, considering the years Bergeron and Toews are having. But to dismiss him and the season he has had would be a travesty.
Stepan will contend for the honor for years to come, and he will have a legitimate shot at winning it in the future. But a nomination in 2013 would not only be a pleasant surprise, it would be deserved.
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