The long-term contract was agreed to and signed roughly two months ago, but that does not mean Derek Stepan still is not thrilled with the commitment he and the New York Rangers made to one another this past off-season.
"It's something that gives me even more confidence heading into this year, that the organization believes in me as much as they do," Stepan told BlueshirtsUnited.com following an informal on-ice workout at the MSG Training Center with his Rangers teammates Thursday afternoon.
"Sometimes you have to humble yourself and believe in yourself; but to have that faith from the organization, from the coaching staff, to everyone involved, certainly makes me feel tremendously honored. I am going to put my best foot forward for the next six years to prove to them that they invested wisely."
Putting his best foot forward is exactly what Stepan has done since being selected in the second round, 51st overall, in the 2008 NHL Draft. He had two excellent collegiate seasons with the University of Wisconsin and an outstanding performance at the 2010 World Junior Championships, where he captained Team USA to the gold medal, notching 14 points in seven games along the way.
After turning pro and starring in the 2010 Traverse City Tournament for prospects, Stepan made the Rangers out of training camp that same fall and proceeded to record a Hat Trick in his NHL debut and finish with 21 goals and 45 points while appearing in all 82 games. Since then Stepan has been among the steadiest of all the Rangers, totaling 252 points and providing quality two-way play from the center position while playing in 362 of a possible 376 career games to date.
"I take it one step at a time, that's how I take my career," explained Stepan. "I left Wisconsin with the goal of trying to make the (Rangers) in Year One, and I was fortunate to do that. After Year One my goal was to improve and so on and so on. Now this has become my home, and fortunately the organization feels the same way about me."
Last year Stepan amassed 55 points, the second-highest total of his five-year NHL career, despite missing the first 14 regular season games of his career. His post-season heroics, most notably in Games Five and Seven of the second round series against the Washington Capitals, helped the Rangers advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the third time in four years.
Just as importantly, Stepan was recognized for his growing leadership skills when he was selected to to be one of the team's alternate captains, a true sign that the now 25 year-old was a fixture among the team's core.
"It's just my personality, I want to help others, I want to be there for my teammates," offered Stepan. "For example, with new guys, anyway you can invite them in, get them into the group as fast as possible, it's important. I think that goes back to my first year, guys helping me. Like Chris Drury, he helped me. I never felt out of place for one second. And now that I'm here for a while, that's just my personality. I don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable. If work is the number one most important thing with our group, then having a close knit team is a close second; and if that's being a leader helping to create that atmosphere, then that's what it is."
While Stepan repeatedly emphasizes those two points--work ethic and a close-knit team--as to keys for the success the Rangers have had ever since he joined the club back in 2010-11, he also readily acknowledges that the organization has created a tremendous winning culture--and the players feed off of that, as well.
"I think of a trickle down effect, it starts up top and how the organization is run from all the way up top," explained Stepan. "It starts with the President and GM, runs through the coaching staff and core players, and trickles down to the players coming in for their first year. It's how we go about things. It's about our work ethic. It's fun to win; but in the end it's about how hard we work, and that starts at the very top of the organization."
Right now, with training camp set to commence late next week, Stepan says he is just focused on the team having a good and productive camp. After that he says the focus shifts to having a strong start to the regular season. Then it's about navigating your way through the ups and downs of a long 82-game campaign while never looking too far ahead at the ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup, something he and his teammates have done quite well in recent years.
"That's the goal, to get over the final hump and win the Cup; but we realize there's a long way to go to get to that point, and we're ready for the challenge."