Rangers center Derek Stepan realizing his potential

Derek Stepan celebrates his second-period goal during a Derek Stepan celebrates his second-period goal during a game against the Carolina Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden. (March 18, 2013) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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When pals Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh are roommates on the road, Stepan chooses the movie.

"They're not very good. I make it about 20 minutes and I fall asleep every time," said McDonagh, who was Stepan's teammate at the University of Wisconsin. But the Rangers defenseman refuses to assume the flick-selection duties. "I want him to grow into it, I think he has potential," McDonagh said.

On the ice, it's also about realizing potential for Stepan, the 22-year-old playmaking center who is blossoming this season and emerging as a future No. 1 center. With a goal against Carolina on Monday and an assist Tuesday against the Devils, Stepan, the Rangers' second pick in the 2008 draft, has 11 points in his last 11 games and is the club's second-leading scorer behind Rick Nash. He's also the team's top plus-minus player at plus-11.

"He's been really good in the last 20 or so games," winger Carl Hagelin said. "I don't know if he's doing anything different. I guess he's used to the game again after not playing for almost half a year [because of the lockout]. He's such a smart player, he's coming into his own right now, making plays and looking stronger each game . . . Defensively, he wins a lot of battles so you can get out of your zone a lot easier, and when you get the puck, he usually finds those lanes where you can pass it to him."

Stepan, who starred at Shattuck-St. Mary's Prep (Minn.), the hockey incubator that spawned Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise and Jonathan Toews, left Wisconsin after two years and opened eyes on the international level. As team captain for the U.S. gold-medal team at the 2010 World Juniors, he led the tournament with 10 assists and 14 points. In 2011, he topped the American team at the World Championships in Slovakia with seven points in seven games.

"Each season you want to get better," Stepan said yesterday after practice. "You work hard in the offseason to try to get yourself in a situation that you can be better . . . A couple of my linemates have made my job a lot easier, I've said it from Day One, Carl's speed creates space and when I was playing with Rick, he creates space."

Stepan, who has been used in all situations -- power play, penalty kill, even-strength -- has impressed veteran center Jeff Halpern. "He just always seems to be in the right position, it's just an awareness," Halpern said. "That helps you offensively and defensively. And he's got good hands."

After this, his third season in New York, Stepan's entry-level deal ends and he becomes a restricted free agent.

If the Rangers' pattern holds, he will triple his salary. Young centers are valuable commodities; no wonder Columbus asked for him in the Nash trade and was rebuffed. Also, it is conceivable that he might be selected for the U.S. Olympic team with Ryan Callahan.

That's called realizing your potential.

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