Hey Leafs, look out for Rangers' Stepan

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:16 PM ET

If you don’t see a star player near the top of the scoring list of your favourite National Hockey League team, chances are you’ll see an asterisk.

That denotes a league rookie, and this year, the woods seem full of ’em, up front, on defence and in goal. The top 20 rookie scorers are close to 20 points or higher and well into double digits in average ice time, while defencemen such as P.K. Subban and Cam Fowler are emulating what Tyler Myers did last season in Buffalo.

Corey Schneider of Vancouver had pushed Roberto Luongo hard enough to qualify for ninth in league save percentage the past few days, while the Cup champion Blackhawks have leaned on Corey Crawford for 15 wins.

In Toronto, the rookie with the biggest impact so far has been goalie James Reimer and that was just in seven games.

On Wednesday the Leafs will be in New York where the Rangers have unveiled Derek Stepan. The Rangers had been hit and miss at the draft table the past few years, but bided their time with Stepan while he played the past two years at the University of Wisconsin.

Stepan made the team out of camp, has played in all 47 games and was tied for third in rookie scoring with 27 points with Edmonton’s Taylor Hall and within nine of leader Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes.

“I’d have to say I’ve surprised myself,” Stepan said in a phone interview. “If you had told me last year at Wisconsin that I’d be in the NHL right away and up as far as I am, I would have laughed. But it all comes from getting a great opportunity here.”

Stepan was already on many players’ radar from his 14-point showing for Team USA at the 2010 world juniors, which netted the Yanks a gold. The first Ranger to seek him out was Chris Drury, who was from a similar NCAA background, but very eager to make the kid from the hamlet of Hastings, Minn., feel right at home.

Drury gave him his phone number and said if needed any help orienting himself in the Apple, to call right away. Drury made the same gesture to Michael Del Zotto the previous year (the fine Stouffville-born defenceman and Stepan were New York’s first two picks in 2008), but Drury knew Stepan better through college hockey grapevine.

“The only things I heard about him were good things, and it’s obvious why after you spend time with him,” Drury told the New York Post.

“The first thing you notice is his maturity in so many different ways, on and off the ice, the way he reacts and responds to different situations. Nothing seems to faze him.

“I try to help him with the system, tell him what (coach John Tortorella) expects and try and help him down the path that way. But I don’t think he misses too much on his own.”

Tortorella wanted the Rangers to get back to a youthful identity and that’s one of the reasons Stepan now centres the second line between newcomer Wojtek Wolski and Mats Zuccarello. They had a strong game with two goals, despite a 3-2 loss to the Flyers on Monday, a couple of days after Stepan was named to the rookie skills contest at the all-star game in Raleigh, N.C.

“I think the reason we had success was that we were playing hard in that game and as a result of that, our offence took over,” Stepan said. “The organization wanted to go to a younger movement and you have a coach who knows we have to go through some development to get there.”

Stepan played organized hockey in Hastings, about a half hour from Minneapolis, St. Paul, but said the town of 20,000 dotted by cornfields had the typical scenes from winter in the North Star State with lots of outdoor hockey. Stepan played two years for the famous high school team Shattuck-St. Mary’s, missing Sidney Crosby by a couple of years, but scoring 38 as a freshman. His second year, he shot the lights out with 111 points in 60 games. His 42 assists in 41 games at Wisconsin in ’09-10 showed the Rangers he could make the jump.

That began in camp, then the first hat trick by a Rangers rookie ever on opening night and carried right to Monday, when Stepan had a goal, assist and led all skaters with seven shots on goal. He has 22 points in his last 31 games.

Keep your eye on the asterisks.

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca

Twitter.com/sunhornby


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