When a rookie enters the National Hockey League and scores 21 goals and 45 points in his first professional season, you would normally consider that to be his "breakout" year. Those were the credentials of 21-year-old Derek Stepan in 2010-11, and although he put up such incredible numbers as a freshman, I don't classify it as his breakout period. He may have surpassed the 20-goal mark, but I think even he'll admit to you that he was not the difference-maker he wanted to be last season. Mr. Stepan has a lot more to offer than 45 points, and we've begun to see why so far this season.
Stepan got off to a slow start to this year, as it took five games to finally register his first point, which was an assist against the Calgary Flames. The kid's struggles reached the point to where they were clearly getting to him mentally, and all parts of his game were escaping from his control. Veteran center Brad Richards had a talk with Stepan early last week, about the time when Derek was moved up to play with Marian Gaborik, and since then there's been no looking back.
In his last five games, Stepan has recorded a total of six points, four of which were assists. He's shown some serious signs of chemistry while playing with Gaborik, and that alone kept him at the top of the lineup throughout the team's four-game winning streak this past week. Gaborik put it best when he said "he's playing with confidence" when referring to his new centerman after Sunday's 3-0 shutout win over the Winnipeg Jets.
That confidence has stemmed from the fact that Stepan has been able to find his game as a playmaker. He can score goals and he can play both sides of the puck, but the kid's vision and hockey smarts are where the gold is hidden. He may not be the prettiest of skaters, but Stepan's hockey IQ makes up for that. He sees and anticipates the play before it happens, which is why, as of late, he has been setting up so many goals for his linemates.
A prime example is on Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens when he fed Erik Christensen for a cross-crease tap-in on the powerplay. When Stepan first got the puck, he played with it a little on the side of the net, drew the attention to himself while giving Christensen time to get to the open spot on the ice, and then threaded the needle with a marvelous pass that went straight through both Montreal defensemen.
No one on this team has the vision that Stepan possesses, not even Brad Richards or Michael Del Zotto. Don't get me wrong, both can move the puck pretty damn well, but they aren't on the level of Stepan in my opinion. The passes he makes while on the move are astonishing to me, especially while crossing through the neutral zone. As they tell you from day one in pee-wee's, it's important to control the neutral and prevent turnovers between the two blue-lines. Stepan has singlehandedly improved the first line's transition game in the neutral zone just with his passing.
This is why head coach John Tortorella moved Stepan up to the first powerplay unit last night, in hopes that he would create more space and aid the team in gaining the offensive zone. Well, that surely paid off as it only took two periods before he found himself on the scorehseet with the man advantage. That was his second goal of the season, and then he went on to set-up Gaborik on an odd-man-rush later in the game in the third period.
Lately we have been seeing the real Derek Stepan; the one who is out there to make a difference, not just satisfy with above average numbers as a third liner. Stepan's obvious strength in playmaking and last season, from what I saw of him, I probably couldn't have told you that. But this season is a whole new ball of wax, and Derek is right on the verge of breaking out and becoming the player that he was molded to be in Shattuck St. Mary's and with the Wisconsin Badgers.
And best of all, he is yet another homegrown player that is destined for stardom.