SUNRISE, Fla. — Derek Stepan has made a mark from Day 1 as a Ranger, scoring a hat trick in his 2010 debut. And he has had many big moments since, notably the overtime game-winner in Game 7 of the conference semifinals last May.
But Stepan now is in uncharted territory near the midpoint of his sixth season. He is a young veteran at 25, and is being paid to be one of the team’s centerpieces.
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For some athletes, money and expectations are a burden. Stepan said he is just trying to be himself, six-year, $39-million contract or not. (He re-signed in late July, narrowly avoiding arbitration as a restricted free agent.)
“Obviously you look at the contract they signed me to and it does show, hey, we trust you,” Stepan said after practice Friday in advance of Saturday night’s game here against the Panthers. “But it’s also, you have more responsibility now and we are putting our faith in you and now you have to give us everything you’ve got each and every night.”
Stepan always has tried to do that, but this season has not gone quite as he had hoped.
Within a week or so in October, he had a wisdom tooth removed and had screws removed from an old jaw surgery. Then he missed 10 games starting Nov. 28 because of broken ribs.
“It’s been a tough go,” he said. “Taking those screws out wasn’t a lot of fun. And the ribs, obviously, wasn’t a whole ton of fun either. So it’s been a new year for me, but it’s something everybody goes through at some point in their career and you have to be able to find a way.”
He also celebrated a happier occasion during that same week in October, albeit another exhausting one, when his wife, Stephanie, gave birth to a son, their first child.
Entering Saturday night, Stepan had six goals and 12 assists in 27 games. But while production is important, he also is being paid for his intangibles as a team leader off the ice and on, where he serves as an alternate captain.
“When we were going through it and started conversations about (contract) numbers,’’ he said, “it showed me what they think of me, and I was tremendously honored to be able to have a contract like that with an organization like this.”
Jagr is an ageless wonder
Jaromir Jagr was 36 when he left the Rangers after the 2007-08 season, presumably at or near the end of his NHL career.
Not so fast! Jagr still is at it, with his 44th birthday approaching next month.
Saturday night he faced the Rangers as a member of the Panthers, for whom he entered the night with team-high totals of 11 goals and 26 points.
“It’s great to see; it’s amazing to see,” Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said. “He’s been so good for so long now, but obviously he’s so dedicated to the game and works hard and he’s just that good.”
Said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, “At 43, to do what he does and still be able to play at that elite level? At some point you see certain players and all of a sudden the hands go or the legs go and they can’t skate or they can’t make the plays.
“But he hasn’t stopped ... It’s phenomenal what he’s doing. And I think it’s great for the game.”
Gropp in the fold
Perhaps the timing was just coincidence, but let’s go with the poetic interpretation of something the Rangers did New Year’s Eve, a day on which many people look both behind and forward.
It was then they announced they had come to terms with Ryan Gropp, whom they drafted right here in Sunrise last June.
Gropp went 41st overall, a position where the Rangers were able to grab him only because they had moved up in the second round via a trade that sent Carl Hagelin to the Ducks.
For now the talented 19-year-old will remain in the Western Hockey League with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Key words: For now.
McIlrath watches, waits
Defenseman Dylan McIlrath played 11 games in a row when Dan Girardi and/or Kevin Klein were hurt but he was expected to be scratched for the third game in a row here Saturday night.
The good news for the Rangers and their fans is that at 23 the 6-5, 220-pounder already has shown he can play in the big leagues.
The bad news for McIlrath is the waiting part.
“I thought I was playing pretty good hockey, so it’s tough coming out of the lineup, but it’s an opportunity for me to just kind of work out in the gym, get stronger and just be a good teammate,” he said after a morning skate in Tampa.
McIlrath admitted dressing is better than not for a young player, but he insisted he is not frustrated. “I’ve just tried to approach this with an open mind,” he said. “I’m not down in the dumps, by any means.”