So far, the preseason has been full of questions and some disappointment for a team that has been looking to improve upon the lack of offensive prowess shown last season. So far, the Rangers are 1-3 this preseason and one of the biggest headlines has been the continued offensive struggle for Rick Nash and Brad Richards.
On Thursday, the New York Rangers and restricted free agent Derek Stepan agreed to terms on a new contract. Getting Stepan back on the ice is imperative for the success of the team, especially given his increased performance in the past couple of seasons.
Two years ago, Stepan had a career-high 51 points. In last year's lockout-shortened season, Stepan scored 44 points in 48 games. Now, with the familiarity with his teammates and a full season ahead of him, the 23-year-old may be on the brink of another career year. But, because this signing took as long as it did, Stepan will have far less time to get acclimated to the new offensive system brought forth from new head coach Alain Vigneault.
Recently, president and general manager Glen Sather said he wished Stepan wouldn't listen to his agent. “I don’t think he is a big enough fool to think that he will sit out the year and it will do any good,” said Sather. This seemed to indicate an increase in animosity between both sides.
In a conference call with the media on Thursday, Stepan expressed the total opposite. "There's no bitterness. At a young age in my career I got to see the business side of it, and it doesn't go as smoothly as you think sometimes. I'm just glad we came to an agreement where we got something done in time, said Stepan. "First and foremost I was looking to getting myself in a New York jersey. The urgency came from the fact I was ready to play."
The Rangers have two more preseason games remaining. Tonight, in Vancouver, Vigneault will face the team he used to coach. The Canucks are now led by former Rangers head coach John Tortorella. Then, on Friday, the Rangers will travel to Las Vegas to play the Los Angeles Kings. There is no word on whether Stepan will be available to play either game.
The biggest benefactor for the re-signing of Stepan is star winger Rick Nash. Last season, a line of Nash, Stepan, and Hagelin showed great effectiveness and chemistry. Without Stepan on the ice with Nash, the decision to keep Brad Richards is exemplified even more. Personally, I believe not using the last amnesty spot to rid themselves of Richards' contract was a mistake. So far, this is how it has seemed to pan out. For the sake of the team, hopefully, Richards finds his old form - the form that led to a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay all those years ago.
At the same time, all of the Rangers now have to get used to a new head coach - one that is not primarily defense first. After years of sacrificing the body and blocking shots, the Rangers are going to need time to get used the new approach. So far this preseason, the Rangers have seemed somewhat lost on the ice. With two games remaining in the pre-season and one of their major offensive stars returning, maybe just maybe, the team can start to turn things around.
Stepan is expected to be a part of the U.S. Olympic hockey team, which will be competing in Sochi, Russia during the Winter Olympics Games in February.
News of Stepan's signing comes a day after the team announced the demotion of nine players to their AHL affiliate Hartford Wolf Pack. The team reassigned defenseman Dylan McIlrath, forward Danny Kristo, goaltender Cam Talbot, forwards Michael Haley, Michael Kantor, and Andrew Yogan, and defensemen Aaron Johnson, Tommy Hughes, and Danny Syvret.
The Rangers still have cuts to make to the roster before they will be ready for the regular season. The team is now down to 30 players on the roster. They will need to drop seven more to be ready for the season. Captain Ryan Callahan and forward Carl Hagelin are both not likely to be ready for the start of the season, so young forwards such as Jesper Fast or Marek Hrivik could see action right away.