After a huge breakout season (44 points in 48 games) Stepan looks like a star. He always had potential but we could only wonder if it would ultimately translate. It obviously has. But this season is fraught with small sample size wonders. Many a player has put together a great half-season. Dustin Byfuglien was a point-per-game defenseman for 40 games once, ditto for Dustin Penner at forward for a similar stretch. This isn’t so much a slight at those guys but rather a reminder that strange things happen over smaller stretches of games. We simply don’t know if Stepan has the mojo to sustain those scoring rates over 82 games, especially with much more difficult travel coming next season.
A huge sign that regression is coming for Stepan comes from his 16.7% shooting this season, which is about four percent higher than his career average of 12.6%. Stepan is a good shooter but he probably can’t sustain that rate of success for 82 games. And Stepan wasn’t shooting more this season. He averaged 2.25 shots on goal per game, which is only a slight increase over his 2.06 SOG/game pace from last season. So unless Stepan starts shooting significantly more his goal scoring rate will almost certainly regress.
Stepan also isn’t seeing much more quality ice time. It’s true that Stepan’s minutes went up this season from 18:56 to 20:55, a two minutes increase but a large portion of that came on the penalty kill where his minutes per game jumped from 1:17 per game to 2:06, while his power play time dropped slightly from 3:06 per game to 2:50.
That this increase in responsibility only served to invigorate Stepan is a huge credit to him but one must wonder if, as he takes over from Brad Richards as top center of the Rangers, if he can handle even more responsibility and attention.
When things got cranked up another notch in the playoffs Stepan had his second straight disappointing playoff showing in terms of scoring with just five points in 12 games. Now, it’s easy to also point out the sample size issues here as well as the reality that scoring is tougher in the playoffs if only because the competition is tougher but teams were able to load up on Stepan as Richards played his way out of the lineup entirely. This meant more Stepan, which was a good thing for the Rangers as he was one of their few effective forwards so it probably shouldn’t be considered a knock on Stepan that his teammates couldn’t help him out much.
But fantasy hockey production largely depends on teammates. Even the most talented players need help. Stepan had some very good linemates this season per FrozenPool:
In particular, things really took off for Stepan in the second half of the season, when Gaborik was dealt and the Callahan-Stepan-Hagelin line became a fixture. That grouping was one of the most successful for Stepan this season resulting in six points (Callahan and Nash with Stepan also produced six points for Stepan). Of course, more time with Rick Nash would be optimal for Stepan’s fantasy owners but perhaps not for the Rangers.
As you can tell from the FrozenPool clippings the Callahan-Stepan pairing is one the Rangers were quite fond of and it makes for one hell of a shutdown line. Those two are so good that they can generate offense against even the opponent’s best players but it still means Stepan isn’t always going to get the most optimal minutes.
They are fixtures on the power play as well though and that’s an area where Stepan could surely see growth. In both 2011-12 and 2012-13 the Rangers power play has ranked 23rd in the league at 15.7%, an intriguing level of consistent failure. This surely cannot be pinned solely on Stepan. In fact, I’d point all fingers at the coaching staff. The Rangers had (and have) more than enough talent to boast a strong power play but as we’ve seen, talent does not always dictate success. A year ago the hapless Predators had the league’s best power play. Good coaching will get you power play success so an improvement here would do wonders for elevating Stepan’s production.
And the good news is that big changes are coming for the Rangers. John Tortorella was fired, meaning a new coaching staff. Perhaps the new coach will have a new vision for Stepan that could either be positive or negative. Maybe he takes Stepan and uses his dependable two-way game in a complete shutdown role, giving easier minutes to Brad Richards and Derrick Brassard. Or maybe he gives Stepan even juicier minutes. It’s too tough to prognosticate how things will turn out so I’m inclined to assume the status quo remains but the one thing I do feel comfortable locking in is an improved power play because it almost surely cannot get worse.
But will any of that matter? The single most important aspect of Stepan’s game is his high motor so again you have to wonder if he can sustain such an intense level of play for 82 games. And then there’s the reality that this was a contract year for Stepan. This summer he is an RFA and will surely command a big pay raise. Will the money change him, even just a little bit? I doubt it will entirely but you can’t just waive away the possibility.
Logan Couture, on the other hand, has another year to go before he gets his big pay raise. To be fair, he received a fairly substantial bridge contract after his entry-level deal ran out but as an All-Star calibre player Couture is certainly worth more than what that bridge contract is paying him currently so motivation is still fully on the table for Couture for at least one more year.
And Couture is in a prime position to succeed. It’s true that Joe Thornton is technically still ahead of him on the depth chart but Couture still sees all the big minutes he needs skating 18:06 per game with 3:07 on the power play this season. Those minutes aren’t quite what Stepan sees but Couture also doesn’t have the same defensive responsibilities despite his strong two-way game. Couture saw less than a minute per game on the penalty kill, which means more energy to focus on offense.
Playing “behind” Thornton does have some disadvantages. Per FrozenPool, Couture’s linemates this season were far from optimal:
The pairings with Thornton were truly favourable but that Ryane Clowe and Martin Havlat were among Couture’s most frequent linemates this season are a compliment to Couture’s abilities since Clowe and Havlat ranged somewhere between scoreless and useless for virtually the entirety of this season and yet Couture managed 21 goals and 37 points in 48 games. What a feat.
Of course, Couture benefits from some truly great linemates on the perennially dominant Sharks power play. This season, more than ever before, Couture found himself predominantly on the Sharks’ top power play unit, which is great news going forward. Couture is surely a fixture on that top unit now, which means power play scoring is something we can hang our hat on barring any drastic changes in San Jose.
Those changes won’t likely come for another year when Couture is due for a raise and all of Patrick Marleau, Thornton and Dan Boyle hit unrestricted free agency. The team could go through a major transition next summer that would see the Sharks rebooting a bit with Couture as a centerpiece. As much as that might mean more minutes, he’s almost capped out in terms of how many minutes he can receive before he starts having to play a less offensively oriented role. I can’t help but wonder if after next season Couture starts heading down the Stepan path of having too much responsibility.
Of course, he could thrive under the lights as well. We just won’t know until he gets to that point. But what we do know for sure is that Couture has at least another year of reprieve before we have anything to worry about. Moreover, his scoring track record is better than Stepan’s, with no glaring outliers to hint at regression. Yes, Couture did shoot above his career average this season at 13.9% but that barely registers as an improvement over his career 12.9% shooting percentage.
Couture’s just a good shooter. And he’s also a big shooter. Couture has averaged over three SOG per game in each of the last three seasons. There’s not much room for improvement there but at the same time, we know how he is going to generate offense and as a quality goal scorer he may not need as much help as Stepan to produce.
I really like both of these players. Long term they both have really strong upside. Neither one is going to challenge for scoring titles but both have futures on your fantasy squad if you can acquire them. I have fewer question marks about Couture however. He just doesn’t register to me as a risk. You pretty well know what you are getting, which is about 0.75 points per game. That’s fantastic and there’s upside for more. I’d love to say I know I am getting that from Stepan. If he keeps getting the minutes he did this season he should wind up scoring right at that sort of pace and there’s certainly upside for more but I can also see more downside.
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