Derek Stepan (C) – New York Rangers
The New York Rangers are sitting pretty in 6th place in the East, and Derek Stepan is playing a very important role in their current trajectory. Considering that the NYR are in the Atlantic Division with the Flyers and the Pens, who are both having pretty stellar seasons, their success is all the more impressive this season. Even more impressive is that Stepan is the third highest scorer on the team with 13 goals and 15 assists in 49 matches, and is arguably playing on one of their top lines at the moment with Wojtek Wolski and fellow rookie Mats Zuccarello. Stepan was also recently named to the rookie team for the All-Star Game. He is an alum of the prestigious Shattuck-St Mary’s hockey team, was drafted 51st overall in 2008, and played for the University of Wisconsin for 2 years before getting playing time with the Rangers this year. I consulted Blueshirts fan Kate (@antheia) for some insight on Stepan.
Stepan was a Rangers prospect for 2 years before cracking the roster. Was he on Rangers’ fans radar or was he a pleasant surprise in training camp?
In the first year, I don’t think the average Rangers fan had heard about him at all. But during and after last year’s World Juniors, I think his visibility increased tremendously for Rangers fans. Suddenly, there was a lot of excitement and curiosity. He had a decent camp, and that increased the interest and it solidified when he opened his career with a hat trick against Buffalo. Safe to say that he’s fast become a fan favorite.
Do you think his two years playing for the University of Wisconsin helped or hindered his ability to make the jump to the NHL?
So far as I can tell, it’s helped. Especially when you look at Ryan McDonagh, who came from the same school and is now playing defense for the Rangers. Clearly, that program instilled something in them; they were extremely poised during the WJC, and have both taken really well to adapting to the NHL level of play.
What is your favourite thing about him, as a player?
He’s ready to learn. It seems so simple, but not everyone is able to do that. A lot of the guys on the team have commented that his overall game improves with every shift, and as a fan, I agree. Not only is he more confident, he seems to be able to absorb the explanation of whatever mistake he made on his last shift, and then correct it.
Cam Fowler (D) – Anaheim Ducks
Cam Fowler was the subject of a number of jokes amongst our little group about the Fowl going to the Ducks at the 2010 NHL Draft. It started as a “wouldn’t it be funny if…” kind of thing, that rapidly became a reality when Fowler was selected 12th overall by the Ducks this past June. Fowler was born in Windsor, right on the US-Canada border, and holds dual citizenship, which is why he played for the United States in international play. Fowler played on the US National Development Team, after declining to sign with the Kitchener Rangers in order to maintain his NCAA eligibility. He eventually broke his early commitment to Notre Dame though, to play with the Windsor Spitfires in the year leading up to his draft year. Fowler managed to crack the lineup in his first year with the Ducks, and is currently leading all rookie defensemen with 3 goals and 21 assists through 44 games. I checked in with Anaheim fan Aaron (@alderirish) for his thoughts on Fowler.
Were you surprised when Fowler cracked the Ducks roster in his first year?
I, myself, was pretty surprised. The Ducks brought in guys like Sutton, Mara, and Lilja (not all at once, but still) and I thought maybe with Festerling still on the team that Cam would get sent for some more development. He’s easily been one of their best and most consistent defensemen though. It’s been a pleasant surprise.
What do you think of the comparisons between Fowler and Scott Niedermayer? Are they warranted or are too many expectations being placed on this young player?
I don’t think the expectations are too high for him. He’s getting the full Niedermayer experience now that he’s living with them, being developed by Scott himself, etc. He’s an amazing skater, a talented player, who has a great shot and great sense. I think he’s going to become a great player. He’s got all the pieces. Hopefully they can put the puzzle together with him, and the Ducks get that potential out of him.
What is your favourite thing about him, as a player?
I think Fowler just gives you the overall package. He’s got a long way to go, but it’s been hard for me to really see any one weakness in his game. I think the potential and work ethic combo is my favorite thing. He competes every night. He does mostly what you ask of him (I’d like to see him score some more goals, but, that’ll come with time). He’s only a -6 on a team that got off to an awful rough start and with all the defensive injuries he’s only just finding himself a stable pairing.
Corey Crawford (G) – Chicago Blackhawks
Corey Crawford is an interesting case. He was drafted 52nd overall by the Chicago Blackhawks way back in 2003. He played for the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League leading up to his NHL draft. He has appeared in games for the Blackhawks in four previous seasons, but since he never played in more than 6 games in any of those seasons (including 08-09 when he played a single game – in the playoffs no less!), he is still eligible for rookie status. Crawford currently holds the second best record for rookie goalies, behind the Flyers’ Bobrovsky who we covered earlier. He has been splitting the net minding duties fairly evenly with Marty Turco, and with 15 wins in 23 starts and a .920 GAA, is definitely making an argument that he is truly the number one guy out there. The 26-year old spent most of his time with Rockford IceHogs of the AHL the past three seasons and the experience he gained is likely contributing to his success with the Blackhawks this season. I asked Blackhawks fan Micah (@micahsussman) of What’s In a Name? for his thoughts on Crawford.
Do you think the 5 years Crawford spent in the AHL helped or hindered his development?
I think that the five years helped his development as an NHL quality goalie. I’ve watched his development for the past three years, and three years ago (the year before they won the Cup), he was still undisciplined as a goalie. He put up decent numbers (22-20-3, 2.59 GAA, 0.917 SV%) but he was unmotivated. It wasn’t like he didn’t want to play in the NHL, but he didn’t want it enough. The year they won the Cup, I was convinced he was going to be the back up over Antti Niemi, who went 18-14-3 (2.43 GAA 0.910 SV%) in 2008 backing up Crawford. Crawford spent the next year in Rockford and got a couple more wins, but he was still unproven in the NHL (he had a couple call ups over the two seasons and was terrible). When he got to training camp he was ready to start working and beat out Hannu Toivonen–whose name I love to say–because he finally worked hard enough to prove he was ready. Coming back to the point, I think those years in the AHL helped him really mature as a player and also let him grow up a little bit. He was amazing in Juniors but the AHL taught him he needed to work harder to become the best.
Does Chicago have 2 starters, 2 backups or is Crawford the #1 man?
I think Chicago has 1.5 starters. I know, that seems like a really strange thing to say, and everyone thinks Marty Turco sucks and blah blah blah. I don’t subscribe to that nonsense. Is Marty Turco the starter in Chicago? No. Does he still have starter quality capabilities? You better [expletive] believe it, but that is not really his role anymore. When posing those same questions about Corey Crawford, the answers are pretty similar, but I will take a different side on it. Corey Crawford is not the starter, and if he hits a slump, Turco will see more ice time. Crawford has the ability to become a starter, but only because of Turco. The roles of the two goalies in Chicago fit more into the teacher and student archetype. Turco, the seasoned veteran, is the teacher, and if you watch how much more confident Crawford is passing the puck and making the Turco Transition compared to the beginning of the year, it is incredible. Crawford will not play every game, he is not there yet, but he will play the majority. In those games where Turco is in net, recently especially, he finds himself showing Crawford how it’s done. The two of them are very supportive of each other and I think the most important part of Crawford’s development has been the ability to work with someone like Turco and learn how to really play his position well.
What is your favourite thing about Crawford, as a goalie?
Geez, what a good question. Other than the fact that I get to yell, “CRAWDADDY!!!!” every time he makes a save, I think that my favorite part of Corey Crawford has got to be his poise out on the ice. He may have a goal scored on him or two goals scored on him, but he never really loses that composure. It was the same way with Antti Niemi when he became the clear starter. He could have a 6-0 loss, and the next week have two shutouts in two games. I also like the fact that Crawford trusts his defense. While the defense in Chicago looks like something on a pee wee hockey team compared to last year’s group (I miss Brent Sopel), it really says a lot that Crawford allows the defense to help cover for him instead of just trying to get on top of rebounds that are way out of his reach.
While these three players may be long shots for Calder contention, they have been performing well recently and definitely deserve recognition for their performance. What do you think about these young players? Drop us a comment below! Also, I would love to hear your thoughts on the NHL’s rookie status regulations. Do you think they allow an unfair advantage to some players, or are the rules acceptable as is?