David Desharnais vs. Derek Stepan
As I mentioned in last week’s piece, my New Year’s resolution is to give the people what they want. So I am taking requests for Cage Matches you would like to see. This week’s Cage Match comes via request from the DobberHockey forums. For next week’s piece however, I want you to tweet me your suggestions so hit me up @stevelaidlaw
This week’s matchup is David Desharnais vs. Derek Stepan in a battle of two of the most productive second line players in the league. A lot of people put too much stock into what line a player plays on and will often knock a player down a peg or two because they see “L2” beside their name but for a lot of players that “L2” designation is a blessing not a curse.
Take Desharnais for instance. He still gets plenty of ice time averaging 18:24 minutes per game and as part of playing on the second line is often blessed with not having to face the other team’s best lines. For a player of Desharnais’ stature that could mean not having to matchup directly against some of the NHL’s largest centermen and defensemen – players that no matter how talented and spirited Desharnais might be will simply overwhelm him.
What’s more important than line designation are linemates and power play time anyhow. So long as a player isn’t lining up against complete hackers or isn’t being shut out of power play time then he will have an opportunity to produce. Desharnais is cleaning up on both fronts.
Let’s talk power play time first because that’s an area where line designation actually matters. Desharnais led all Canadiens forwards skating 3:17 per game with the man advantage as a member of the Habs’ top power play unit. Granted this was a power play that was one of the absolute worst in the league finishing a dismal 27th in efficiency scoring on just 14.3% of all opportunities but it’s hard to blame Desharnais for the lack of production. He’s the best Canadiens forward at creating for others, making him the de facto power play quarterback often times.
The submarining of the Canadiens’ normally efficient power play (this was the first season since 2003-04 that the Canadiens had a power play score at less than 19%) was the combination of many things beyond Desharnais’ abilities. It starts with losing assistant coach and power play guru Kirk Muller as he joined the Nashville Predators organization in the summer of 2011 before eventually becoming head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes. There are other factors like the absence/diminishment of Andrei Markov, the struggles of PK Subban and a roster in flux were also factors on top of head coach Jacques Martin’s tenure quite visibly reaching a head but these were all minor players when compared to the loss of Muller.
To be fair, firing Martin did seem to help. The Canadiens’ power play percentage improved from 11.3% under Martin to 16.9% under interim coach Randy Cunnyworth but it is questionable whether this result was from simply changing the voice in the room, luck or from some actual brilliance on Cunnyworth’s part. Not that it particularly matters as the decisions will now fall to former and new Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien and his staff, which is mostly composed of new assistants. There’s no history to indicate that Therrien is a particularly good coach when it comes to special teams play. His Canadiens teams were all pretty terrible on the power play, while his Penguins teams were all pretty good. I suspect that Therrien will defer to his assistants with regard to special teams . You can read more about them here. Any improvement should help Desharnais and he may need the help as he and his linemates will be commanding more attention after being one of the league’s most productive lines last season.
Desharnais, as FrozenPool will show us, was pretty much locked in beside power forwards Max Pacioretty and Eric Cole.
Desharnais’ playmaking ability was on full display playing alongside those two strong goal scorers, each of whom had career-best seasons. That, of course, brings up the topic of luck and regression but it would seem that neither Pacioretty nor Cole was all that lucky last season. They were simply good.
Let’s start with Cole who played 82 games for the second straight season and second time ever. I don’t really know what to make of Cole’s new-found health. On one hand, I refuse to buy into it completely but on the other hand he does seem to have turned a corner. Cole also posted a very high shooting percentage of 14.5% last season but that’s not so far removed from his career average of 12.9% to think he was overly lucky. The one area where I might be concerned is with Cole firing a career high 241 shots on goal AND parlaying that with a high shooting percentage but at some point we have to give Cole and Desharnais some credit for making that happen. A little regression from Cole probably doesn’t hurt Desharnais too much.
Then there’s Pacioretty who had about as big of a breakout season as anyone last year. He’s always had the potential to be a force (if you’ve ever picked up a Dobber Prospect’s Guide you’d know as much) and he really rewarded poolies who were patient with him. Like Cole, Pacioretty set a career high in shots on goal last season with 286, more than double his previous career high. He also shot 11.5% which is a tick above his career average of 10.0%. But last season was Pacioretty’s first full NHL season. He’d never produced such volume because he’d never been given an opportunity to do so before. I’m not going to lie Pacioretty’s future is a bit of a mystery to me. I would be no less surprised to his production increase as I would to see it decrease. What I do know is that he is the real deal and more than capable of replicating.
I think that there is certainly reason to be concerned about Desharnais in terms of regression. Both he and his linemates reached uncharted territory last season (uncharted for them) and will no doubt see some pushback from the rest of the league with regard to shutting them down. This pushback could be mitigated by internal improvements from either the players themselves (Desharnais is just 26, Pacioretty is only 24) or from the coaching staff beefing up the power play. The new coaching staff does put Desharnais in jeopardy of losing his role but I believe he proved enough to not get pushed out. I also believe that Therrien would be foolish to break this line up or to cut Desharnais’ minutes.
Stepan, like Desharnais, is not held back by his “second line” designation. In fact, I think he benefits from it just as much as Desharnais does. At just 22 years old it’s doubtful that Stepan is ready to battle against top line forwards and defensemen on a night to night basis. He has the potential to get there but it’s of benefit to Stepan, Stepan’s fantasy owners and the Rangers that they have been able to ease him into the NHL (not that being asked to play a top six role in the NHL is easy).
Stepan skated 18:57 minutes per game last season of which 3:06 came on the power play. As FrozenPool will demonstrate Stepan was also one of the biggest winners of the linemate lottery last season pairing with Marian Gaborik at even strength while skating with all the big guns on the top power play unit:
Stepan has enough skill and hockey sense to mesh with anyone on the ice and he doesn’t need the puck on his stick to be effective (a unique skill among centermen), which makes him the perfect foil for the Rangers’ puck dominating forwards; Gaborik and Brad Richards. The question for Stepan now becomes whether or not he can continue to receive top unit power play time with Rick Nash coming to town. I think that he can but let’s consider all the possible scenarios.
The Rangers could experiment with a five-forward PP but that seems far-fetched, especially with Michael Del Zotto able to play the point. So who takes a seat for Nash? Or does Nash play on the second unit? There are a lot of ramifications for everyone involved here. I just have a hunch that it’s Gaborik who takes a seat though.
I think about it this way; Richards is essential to the Rangers’ power play because he’s their quarterback. There are few players more dynamic or productive with the man advantage in the entire league so Richards is a must-have on the Rangers’ top unit. Richards and Gaborik struggled to create chemistry all of last season because their respective styles just don’t mesh. Gaborik is all speed and athleticism off the rush, while Richards is more apt to set things up in the offensive zone and prod for opportunities. Gaborik is a sniper but he’s just not the sort that would benefit the most from playing with a guy like Richards.
Nash could stand to benefit more. His game is better suited to the puck-possession style of Richards and he has the frame to better go to the dirty areas where he can score off of Richards’ playmaking. Nash is every bit the goal-scorer that Gaborik is too so it’s not like the Rangers would lose anything in that regard.
Nash could of course take Callahan’s role on the power play doing the dirty work in the corners and in front of the net but that seems like a misuse of Nash’s abilities. You don’t use a thoroughbred to plow the fields so you want to put Nash in a position where he can best utilize his skill so leave Callahan out there to do the yeoman’s work and put Nash elsewhere. Plus, it isn’t like having another guy who can grind in the corners is a negative.
That brings us to Stepan who is necessary to the top PP because of his abilities as a faceoff man. This isn’t to say that Stepan is good at taking faceoffs but rather he is simply better than the other options available. Sure, Richards could take all of the draws on the power play but he is also playing the point so it’s difficult to swing both. Stepan, as mentioned before, also has the great ability to work without the puck, which makes him a valuable player on the ice. You wouldn’t want to put Gaborik, Nash and Richards all out there at the same time because there simply isn’t enough puck to go around.
Plus, imagine Gaborik as a change-up game-breaker on the second power play unit. The Rangers could hit you in the mouth with the puck-possession play of a Richards-Callahan-Nash-Stepan top unit and then change things up and bring out the dazzling speed of Gaborik on the second unit. It is possible that the Rangers take things a step further and move to two three-forward power play units, keeping Stepan and Gaborik together as the “second unit” but in reality the team would have two strong units that are interchangeable. This is an extreme possibility but the only issue I can see is how thin it might stretch the Rangers’ defensemen a bit too much. Who would pair with Del Zotto on the top unit? Girardi? Staal? McDonagh? Stralman?
It’s tough to see a fit, especially when Richards fits so well as the power play quarterback, a position he will play whether you put one or two defensemen out there. Of course, Del Zotto also still needs a contract but he is an RFA and talented so it’s hard to see the Rangers letting him go and if they did that would simply serve to exacerbate the Rangers’ lack of offensive defensemen.
It will be truly interesting to see how Rangers head coach John Tortorella deals with the embarrassment of riches he has at the forward position but whatever he decides it is hard to see Stepan losing. He is a key cog on this team and there is now no one in a position to challenge for his second line center position. In seasons past there were always concerns that perhaps Artem Anisimov would take the job or that Dubinsky would make the move to center permanently but those two are gone in the Rick Nash trade so Stepan is guaranteed his minutes and guaranteed good linemates.
His production does depend on getting that top unit power play time though and there is a chance that he could lose some minutes there. Stepan would also take a serious hit if Gaborik goes down with injury, something that he is no stranger to. Gaborik is coming off of offseason shoulder surgery and while reports indicate that he will be ready for the start of the season that offers no guarantees about the future. Gaborik may also see his goal scoring suffer due to reduced strength following the surgery. There is a history of players declining precipitously following shoulder surgery so that’s something to be aware of.
The big thing for me is that it’s hard to see how the changes the Rangers made this off-season will truly help Stepan. Yes the power play production could improve if Nash is a better fit than Gaborik but it’s not like Stepan’s role can really increase. The Rangers also need to find a second linemate for Stepan after trading Anisimov this summer. The Rangers will try to promote from within with the likely candidates being Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider with Hagelin being my favourite. Kreider offers the more complete package but there are questions about his NHL readiness after a pretty disappointing run in the AHL this season. Hagelin, meanwhile has the speed that could mesh well with Gaborik (which isn’t to say that Kreider isn’t fast). But it remains to be seen if any chemistry will be found. All that adds up to Stepan needing to make individual improvements in order to take that next step something I’m not sure he is ready for.
Stepan’s production in the Finnish SM-liiga was underwhelming this year with just four points in 12 games. He hardly had much time to get acclimated over there and the SM-liiga is a notoriously low-scoring league but the point is that he didn’t wow with his production. He was also rather underwhelming in the high pressure NHL playoffs with just nine points in 20 games. With both of these examples you can call sample size effects into play but neither example is cause for optimism however you slice it.
Stepan has a bright future and is in a pretty great situation but I’d have a tough time going with him over Desharnais, who is older and more dynamic offensively. One of the greatest concerns with Stepan as a fantasy prospect was that his two-way game would be a liability and prevent him from being a major scorer at the next level. So far Stepan’s two-way game has been an asset that has gotten his foot in the door early but I think at this stage in his development is where we might see him start to suffer for it. Desharnais on the other hand has but one purpose – scoring. If Desharnais isn’t used for his offense then he won’t be used at all. Desharnais wins this one.
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