Rangers’ Stepan Out Indefinitely
Ranger fans were worried about Derek Stepan when he wasn’t able to go in the team’s first preseason game against the Devils on Monday night. Stepan had a leg injury, but the one he sustained Wednesday afternoon at practice was far more severe.
The Blueshirts’ first line center was taking part in conditioning drills when he fell to the ice visibly in pain. It was later discovered that the 24-year-old center had a non-displaced fracture to his fibula, which will sideline him for about four to six weeks.
This is a huge blow to a Rangers’ team that does not have many top six center options on their team. They have plenty of depth at the position, but nobody at the level of Stepan who could really be a solid first or second line center. The way it looks right now, Derick Brassard would probably be promoted to first line center, but after that it is pretty much anyone’s guess. The only other for sure center on a line before Stepan’s injury was Dominic Moore, who is a third or fourth line caliber center at best. Moore did play on the top two forward lines when Stepan was sidelined with his jaw injury in the playoffs last season and did a fairly good job, but he will not be a long term solution for New York going forward.
The bottom line is this: one of the Rangers’ rookies or new additions is going to have to set up, as they are going to be thrown into the fire right away. Head coach Alain Vigneault stated after the injury to Stepan that there are plenty of guys who can fill the center positon on the roster like Matt Lombardi, J.T. Miller, Chris Mueller and Kevin Hayes. These names don’t exactly fly off the page just yet, but given the opportunity who knows what could happen. Miller, Lombardi and Hayes did some good things in the Rangers’ first preseason game versus the Devils and Hayes scored in Tuesday’s contest versus New Jersey, so it’ll really all come down to who outperforms who come the start of the regular season.
The big issue after that, though, is who plays where. For arguments sake, say Hayes, a former Boston College player, makes the team as a center. Hayes and Chris Kreider have previous chemistry from when they played in BC together. Would Vigneault want to bump Kreider down to the second line if he feels that chemistry is still there, or would Vigneault want to put Moore on the second line and leave Hayes or Miller as a third line center? With that theory in mind, would he move Mats Zuccarello up to the first line in order to maintain the chemistry he had on the third line with Brassard last season, or leave him down on the third line with a Hayes or a Miller or a Lombardi?
These questions still have yet to be answered, and there is a long way to go before they have to be, but one thing Rangers fans should not do is panic over this injury. Yes, losing a top line center before the season starts is not a way to begin as reigning Eastern Conference champions, but Stepan really won’t be missing that much time. If Stepan is out for the minimum four weeks, he could be back in the middle of October and barely miss any time. Worst case, which could be anywhere from six to eight weeks, Stepan would miss the whole month of October and possibly a little bit of November, missing a maximum of 12 games.
With that in mind, it is a long season. If Stepan is able to return at worst by November, he will still have a majority of the season to perform at a high level for the Rangers assuming the injury doesn’t hinder his play that much.
The big question, however, is how much the Blueshirts will miss his presence on the ice. Stepan was great on the penalty kill and one of the Rangers most valuable scorers last year. It’s time to see what Mueller, Lombardi, Hayes and Miller are made of, and how the four center slots will be filled. One thing is for sure, the Rangers starting lineup is going to be very different than what some may have anticipated coming into the year.