New York Rangers' Derek Stepan Not Having Olympic-Caliber Season

Rob Waters@NYRangersZoneCorrespondent IJanuary 17, 2014

Derek Stepan may be struggling to put up points on the scoreboard, but he's bound to recover.
Derek Stepan may be struggling to put up points on the scoreboard, but he's bound to recover.Scott Levy/Getty Images

After nearly a point-per-game season last year, Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers is not living up to the potential that he has set for himself or the team.

In 49 games played this season, Stepan has seven goals and 20 assists for 27 points. Last season, Stepan had 18 goals and 26 assists for 44 points in 48 games.

As of January 17, Stepan's 27 points clock in at 118th in the league in scoring. Last season, his 44 points ranked 21st in the league, ahead of other stars like Matt Moulson, Anze Kopitar and teammate Rick Nash.

Will the real Stepan please stand up?

Stepan told Larry Brooks of the New York Post yesterday that his goal scoring drought is bothering him. "Of course it bothers me. For sure it weighs on me," he said.

The Rangers have finally hit a smooth offensive groove and the offense-oriented system head coach Alain Vigneault has prescribed seems to be just what the doctor ordered. The Rangers are currently third in the league with 1597 shots on goal and are slowly but surely climbing the Metropolitan Division standings.

A 1-0 victory against the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 16 bumped the Rangers to third in the Metropolitan Division with a 25-21-3 record and 53 points.

The Rangers are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games played, and with Henrik Lundqvist back in Olympic form, the Rangers are on track to make up for a less-than-stellar beginning to the 2013-14 season in the second half.

So with Stepan's disappointing numbers, it begs the question: Is he truly Olympic-worthy?

This season, he certainly has not had the numbers one would expect of an Olympian. Fellow American and former teammate Brandon Dubinsky, now of the Columbus Blue Jackets, has 29 points and has played a much better game than Stepan as of late.

However, Stepan's performance in the 2009-10 World Junior Championship, where he won gold by defeating Canada and had a team-leading 14 points, was likely the tipping point that earned him a roster spot on Team USA.

On social media, many have advocated for Stepan to be a healthy scratch in an attempt to motivate him, as it worked well for teammates Mats Zuccarello, Benoit Pouliot and to a lesser extent Michael Del Zotto.

I do not advocate the benching of Stepan for several reasons.

First, it would certainly send the wrong message to the budding center, who is on the verge of representing his country in Sochi.

Second, the Rangers have been a winning team since the new calendar year and there is no viable alternative to Stepan. J.T. Miller has continuously shown this season in his 25 appearances with the Rangers that he is not quite NHL-ready, despite scoring well in the AHL with the Hartford Wolf Pack.

Finally, in time Stepan will rebound and return to his scoring ways. He has the trust of Vigneault, which is important, and the same can't be said for other struggling players on the roster. He previously called out Pouliot and Del Zotto earlier this year for their lack of performance.

Vigneault acknowledges that Stepan is "very demanding of himself and wants to improve." "Those are great qualities for a player, who is very young and in my estimation is only going to get better," he added.

For someone who recorded the eighth-most points in the NHL (56 goals, 84 assists, 140 points) among players 23 or younger over the last three seasons, Stepan is surely going to figure it out.

As long as he and Vigneault maintain their confidence that he will regain his form, his numbers will improve.