By: Michael Abitabilo
Earlier today, the New York Rangers learned that Derek Stepan will be sidelined indefinitely with a broken leg suffered during a non-contact drill in training camp. Already thin at the center position following the off-season compliance buyout of Brad Richards, the Rangers were banking on Stepan to anchor the team’s first line. Without him, though, the Rangers are left with just two regular centers from last year’s team – Derick Brassard and Dominic Moore – along with veteran/journeyman Matthew Lombardi, who has returned to the NHL after playing last season in the Swiss National League.
Stepan has been incredibly durable thus far in his career – he has yet to miss a regular season game and missed just one game last postseason after having his jaw obliterated by former teammate Brandon Prust. He has also been highly productive. His .67 points per game since his 2010-2011 rookie season rank 28th in the NHL in that span. His offense undoubtedly will be missed. But if there is a silver lining to the Stepan injury, it’s that the void his absence will leave will also create opportunity for several of the Rangers’ prospects. Stepan’s extended absence all but guarantees that J.T. Miller and rookie Kevin Hayes will be on the roster come opening night. Miller, who has bounced back and forth between New York and Hartford over the last two years and drew criticism from Rangers’ coach Alain Vigneault, has impressed in training camp, and was a standout player in the team’s first preseason game on Monday versus New Jersey. Hayes, the 6’5” rookie who signed with the Rangers after spurning the Chicago Blackhawks, is thought by some to be an NHL-ready prospect despite the fact that just five months ago, he was playing for the NCAA championship as a member of the Boston College Eagles. Other prospects who may get a long look this preseason are Ryan Haggerty, Danny Kristo and Jesper Fast. Miller and Hayes certainly have a leg up on the other prospects in camp, though, if for no other reason than the fact that they both can play center or on the wing.
Stepan will be missed, but, as we learned last season, preseason is not the time to panic (whoops!). If all goes well, Stepan could be back in the lineup before Thanksgiving. In the meantime, while we might not see a Wally Pipp/Lou Gehrig scenario, it’s time for the baby Blueshirts to blossom on Broadway.
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Mike Abitabilo is the co-founder of the Read Zone, and is way more bummed about this injury than this post lets on.