TORONTO - After missing the first 12 games with a broken leg, Derek Stepan makes his season debut for the New York Rangers at the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night.
Stepan fractured his left fibula in a pre-season game and only recently was able to practise fully with his teammates. But that didn't stop him from bugging coach Alain Vigneault about getting in.
"He's been chewing my ears off for about a week here to get back playing," Vigneault said before the game. "We've just been really smart about this, being on the safe side."
Stepan slides into the No. 2 centre spot for the Rangers between Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello. The 24-year-old was the Rangers' second-leading scorer last season with 57 points on 17 goals and 40 assists.
Being able to produce like that right away may not be a realistic expectation, but the coaching staff won't artificially slow him down.
"We'll see how he does here tonight, see how he feels on the ice," Vigneault said. "He's good to go, he wants to play and we'll just have to see how he's feeling out there. If he's feeling all right, then obviously I won't hold myself back."
Stepan went through a similar situation a year ago missing training camp, though it was because he and the team were at a contract impasse and not the result of an injury.
"No training camp, it's a tough thing for a player," Vigneault said. "You can work as hard as you want by yourself in the gym, on the ice, but until you get into those game-like conditions and into games, it's tough. It's going to be a challenge for him, but he's a smart player and he'll do the right thing."
A 2008 second-round pick of the Rangers, Stepan has 73 goals and 124 assists in 294 career games.