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Rangers look to fill hole at center while Derek Stepan is out

Derek Stepan skates with the puck in the

Derek Stepan skates with the puck in the second period of Game 7 of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Washington Capitals. (May 13, 2013) Credit: AP

GREENBURGH, N.Y. - With Derek Stepan on crutches and his left leg in a cast, tryouts for an opening at center ice for the Rangers begin in earnest with a preseason game Friday night in Chicago.

Stepan, the team's second-leading scorer last season who is sidelined 4-6 weeks with a fractured fibula (he suffered it Wednesday during on-ice conditioning drills), said he was lucky that the injury wasn't worse.

"I go to push on my left leg and you hear the snap, the pop," he said, "and I can't put anything on it. That when I knew it was more than a [originally diagnosed] bone bruise . . . We were pretty fortunate that it doesn't require surgery."

It is the second straight season that Stepan won't have a full training camp. Last fall, he missed 16 days in a contract dispute and struggled early.

"I don't think anybody is going to come out of the gates without a training camp and play well," Stepan said. "I think this time's a little different. I'll be able to practice with the team leading up to [playing again], and having the strength coach [Reg Grant] help me. Last time, I was kind of doing it on my own in Madison [Wisconsin, with his college team], but it's kind of tough when you're not getting reps."

In Stepan's absence, Derick Brassard will become the No. 1 center, and three other centers -- Dominic Moore, J.T. Miller and Oscar Lindberg -- will be in the lineup against the Blackhawks. Moore already has a role when the season opens on Oct. 9 and Miller, who had two assists against the Devils on Monday, has a good chance of making the cut.

Centers Matthew Lombardi, Chris Mueller and Kevin Hayes, who played center in the 5-4 loss to the Devils, remained behind. All will have chances to play in the next four games. "With Step, you think five-on-five, power play, PK," coach Alain Vigneault said. "Somebody else is going to get those minutes."

Without Stepan for opening night and beyond, "four centers are going to have to step up and make sure we're ready to go," Brassard said.

Hayes, the 6-4 rookie out of Boston College who was signed as a free agent, also will get a look on right wing, Vigneault said.

"So far what I've seen, I liked, I see a lot of upside," he said. "But from talking to him . . . we know he's more comfortable on the wing."

New York Sports