Hockey's preseason claimed another victim on Wednesday when the New York Rangers' Derek Stepan suffered a broken fibula during the team's on-ice conditioning test. For a Rangers team that was playing for a Stanley Cup just three months ago, the outlook is much gloomier now, since New York just got thinner at its absolute thinnest and most dire position.
The Rangers' center depth was such a concern this summer that there was talk the team could mortgage the farm system to bring on a big-name center like Joe Thornton or Jason Spezza. The latter moved to Dallas, and the former will surely here his name kicked around again as a potential piece to bring to Broadway in Stepan's absence.
A lack of proven NHL centermen
Without Stepan, Derick Brassard remains the only center on the roster who's put up anything close to top-end production, posting 45 points last year while skating on the team's third line. He was already set to see an increase in responsibilities this season on a new contract, but how he would respond to that promotion, and how he might possibly respond to being tasked as the team's No. 1 center, is very unknown.
Outside of Brassard, Dominic Moore represents the other experienced guy down the middle for the Rangers, but he is suited more for a bottom six, preferable fourth-line role. It's difficult to envision Alain Vigneault and Co. thrusting him higher on the depth chart
If the Rangers forge ahead with the group they have, the inexperience will be on display. J.T. Miller, who has looked rather impressive during the Rangers' preseason preparations, is and has been a logical candidate to claim a spot in the middle. But Miller was being pegged as a third-line center, and he has deficiencies playing in his own zone. The 21-year-old former first round pick has been dominant in the AHL, but has yet to make the transition at the NHL level. Asking him to expedite that transition process, and perhaps do so in an expanded role, will be a tall task.
This injury does open the door for Kevin Hayes, the highly touted free agent out of Boston College whom the Rangers lured to New York in August. But Hayes, like Miller, lacks the NHL experience -- in fact, Hayes has never played a single professional game that wasn't an exhibition. More accountable in his own zone than Miller, Hayes looked to be in the "getting his feet wet" phase during his preseason debut against New Jersey on Monday night. Again, the team may ask him to accelerate his development, while all of this adds up to many question marks and many bad omens.
Stepan was not only the motor and the maestro on the Rangers' top line between Rick Nash and Chris Kreider, but he was a player who saw time in all three phases of the game. The Rangers' penalty kill, which has been a strength of the team over the past few seasons, was already facing losses with Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle and Ryan Callahan all playing in Tampa Bay, and will now go without Stepan as well.
Will this force a trade?
The puck is officially in Glen Sather's court. The general manager will have to decide whether the Rangers paper mâché their way through the early part of the season and make do until Stepan is healthy enough to return -- which, at best, seems like it'll be until November -- or if they go out and find another center.
This was a team already thin at the center position even with a healthy Stepan. The Rangers were absolutely outclassed by the Kings in the Cup Final last year down the middle, but Sather and the team sat on their hands, buying out Brad Richards and not really bringing anything aboard in the way of an experienced center.
That inactivity will now bite them, because should the Rangers even try to pursue a trade, they'll have no leverage in any negotiations. This is a team desperately in need of help down the middle, and that's not exactly an unknown fact.
Then again, this is a team that was pretty mediocre-to-bad through the first portion of last season under Vigneault. The Rangers didn't click under their then-first-year head coach until around Christmas. It's entirely possible, having just experienced that, they will bank on a similar late-season push this year.