The waiting for the Rangers, free agent Derek Stepan, and the Blueshirts Faithful is over. The team announced Thursday that it has agreed to terms on a new contract with Stepan, who led the team in scoring with 44 points (18-26-44) in 48 games last season. According to head coach Alain Vigneault, Stepan will join the team in New York in time for practice on Sunday, leaving him four practices before the regular season opens next Thursday in Phoenix.
"I'm very happy...they've been working at this for some time now, and he's one of our top players," Vigneault told reporters following the Rangers morning skate in Vancouver. "We're going to welcome him with open arms."
Stepan has never missed a regular season or post-season contest since turning pro with the Rangers in 2010-11. Over 212 regular season games Stepan has scored 56 goals and totaled 140 points. In the playoffs he has 14 points (5-9-14) in 37 games.
The 23 year-old Stepan notched a career-best 51 points two seasons ago, but would have flown past that total if last season was not lockout-shortened. His signing, exactly one week before the Rangers open up the 2013-14 campaign in Phoenix, gives Vigneault another major asset to deploy on the ice, though Stepan will have to adapt quickly in understanding the new systems and style of play favored by Vigneault.
"He's a great player," Rick Nash said of Stepan on Thursday. "He's a guy I didn't know too much about before I got here. He's definitely an elite center in the NHL, a big piece to this puzzle, so it's good to have him back."
Stepan's absence throughout training camp was missed in all phases of the Rangers' game. Not only is he an "elite" offensive centerman, as Nash pointed out, but Stepan is a diligent and reliable player defensively, especially on the penalty kill where he most likely will be deployed on the team's top unit.
"He's such a good two-way player," noted defenseman Ryan McDonagh. "That's what you want in your centerman, someone you can trust in the D zone, too. He's a smart player, always in great position, and then he's got that creative side on the offense. We're really happy it (the contract) finally came together for him."
Added goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, "It's great news. I'm really happy he's back on the team and he can focus on the season. I look forward to seeing him in the locker room. It's great news for us."
On a day that sees Vigneault return to Vancouver for the first time as Rangers coach, and the team comes face-to-face with former head coach John Tortorella, the best and most happy news on the Rangers front is that Stepan is back and ready to return to action with his fellow Blueshirts.