It’s hard to believe that former Ranger Derek Stepan is now a 30-year-old entering his 11th NHL season. His NHL debut hat trick, scored in Buffalo on Oct. 9, 2010, doesn’t feel as far removed as time suggests.
Come 2021, Stepan will suit up for his third organization, after being traded from the Arizona Coyotes to the Ottawa Senators over Christmas weekend. The 2020-21 season will very much be a show-me year for Stepan after his numbers drifted to a career-worst 28 points in 70 games during his final season in the desert.
It’s entirely possible that Stepan’s stay in Ottawa will be brief. He is entering the final season of a six-year, $39 million contract signed following a 55-point showing for the Rangers in 2014-15. If Stepan can rejuvenate his offensive output, a contending team would look to acquire him before the Apr. 12 trade deadline.
Now is a good time as ever to take a look back at Stepan’s seven seasons in New York. Stepan caught the attention of then-head coach John Tortorella during 2010 training camp to earn an opening night roster spot as a fresh-faced 20-year-old, and his aforementioned hat trick debut was a sign of things to come for the wiser than his age rookie.
Tortorella was notoriously demanding of his young players, yet Stepan’s professional approach meshed well with the fiery, detail-obsessed bench boss.
“I like the way he carries himself,” Tortorella said in Oct. 2010. “It's not a flashy thing. He's not running around, doing a dance. It's part of the job. There's an inner confidence, and I think he respects the game where it isn't a spectacle all the time if something happens good or bad.”
Stepan finished the 2010-11 season with an impressive 45 points. He followed that up with a 51-point sophomore season, as the Rangers pushed the rival New Jersey Devils to six games in a 2012 Eastern Conference Final that was ended by an unforgettable Adam Henrique overtime decider.
With each passing season, Stepan and the Rangers grew together. He led the Rangers with 44 points in 48 games during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. His four shorthanded goals tied for the NHL lead, adding to his reputation as a dependable two-way center.
“He’s a real smart player that prepares himself real well,” former Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said of Stepan. “He holds himself very accountable to his game. He evaluates his game well.”
One year later, he posted a career-best 57 regular season points ahead of what would be his finest postseason. Stepan notched 15 points in 24 playoff games, which is impressive on its own – but it’s even more remarkable when you remember that he played most of the 2014 Eastern Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final while eating food through a straw, after a high hit from former teammate Brandon Prust in Game 3 of the Conference Final.
Playing on with a broken jaw, Stepan and the Rangers didn’t have enough offensive firepower to keep up with the superior Los Angeles Kings, who won the Stanley Cup in five games. The 2014-15 season was another close call that ended in heartbreak; after a franchise-record 113-point Presidents’ Trophy campaign, the Blueshirts were eliminated on home ice, shut out by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the seventh game of the 2015 Eastern Conference Final.
Between the 2012-13 and 2016-17 seasons, Stepan averaged 0.75 points per game, and he led the Rangers to the playoffs in all seven seasons he spent in New York. In all, the right-handed center tallied 360 points in 515 regular season games and 49 points in 97 postseason games as a Ranger. His 515 regular season games played ranks 32nd among skaters in team history, and his 360 points places him 25th in the franchise record book.
The Rangers traded Stepan to the Coyotes at the 2017 NHL Draft, in a salary-shedding move that brought offensive-defenseman Tony DeAngelo to The Garden. At the time, the Rangers seemed to recognize the writing on the wall – that Stepan’s contract was an overpay and that his numbers would likely regress as he neared age 30.
That has happened, but now at age 30, it will be up to Stepan to prove he’s better than the 35 and 28-point returns of the past two seasons. If he can revitalize his career, plenty of contenders will be ringing the Sens come April.
Follow Sean Hartnett on Twitter: @HartnettHockey