The major additions in New York this season all come in the form of exciting young players. Mika Zibanejad, acquired from Ottawa for Derick Brassard, helps the Rangers get younger down the middle, while Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich come in highly touted but short on NHL experience. But they certainly won’t be alone in Manhattan.
“You always talk about the balance of older guys and younger guys,” said center Derek Stepan. “The Rangers organization always does a good job of keeping that balance. In the NHL, you always have to be able to adjust and adapt to the new styles and speeds of the game and these young guys will help us do that as a team.”
At 26, Stepan is no greybeard, but he does have six years with the Rangers under his belt already. The solid two-way pivot faced some of the toughest competition of any New York skater last season and came away with his usual 50-plus points. He’s a veteran, even if he doesn’t feel grizzled.
“I’d like to still think I’m a young guy,” he said. “As you go through it, you look at older guys when you were young and how they treated you and taught you certain things, and you try to give back the same way.”
Being a calming presence is part of that. If the rookies (Vesey and Buchnevich) need a guy they can lean on, Stepan is more than happy to be that person. Because he had his own roster of big brothers when he first got to New York. Marian Gaborik was big for him both on and off the ice, while Marc Staal and Dan Girardi played key roles as well. Ryan Callahan was there for Stepan until he got traded to Tampa Bay, but the guy who came back in the deal from the Lightning was just as crucial.
“Marty St-Louis put a big imprint on me,” Stepan said. “There’s a lot I took from him that I’m grateful for. Brad Richards was huge, too. He taught me a ton of stuff that I wouldn’t have got from a coach; inside-the-dressing room stuff.”
Stepan would also learn from plays that Richards made on the ice, or take parts of St-Louis’ preparation and work it into his own routine. Other players impacted him too and Stepan didn’t want to make his list sound complete, because he knew there were some he was forgetting.
Good organizations have guys that reach out to the kids, Stepan noted, and that’s why he wants to take that torch in New York. It may even be a little more important for the Rangers, as Manhattan can be a playground for young folks with tons of money.
“It’s crazy, that city’s huge,” said Stepan, who was born and raised in Minnesota. “But you can make it really small. It’s important to have a good head on your shoulders before you come to New York. You can enjoy the off-ice stuff, no doubt about it. But to be able to be a pro and make sure we’re getting the job done on the ice first is the biggest thing the older guys need to continue to preach in New York.”
This will be an interesting season for the Rangers. They seem to have been trending down recently, at least in terms of playoff success, but it’s hard to look at the roster and not see a team that could do damage if lightning strikes. Star goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s World Cup performances ranged from super to just OK, but at least he showed that his ceiling is still high.
And the integration of Zibanejad, Vesey and Buchnevich will be fun to watch, especially with Stepan, Chris Kreider and Rick Nash returning up front. The defense may be getting into questionable territory, but Ryan McDonagh is still a solid No. 1 and Brady Skjei offers hope in the youth department.
Whatever happens, it will be an interesting ride – and guys like Stepan will make sure they do their part to turn this particular group of players into a team.