Zach Stepan was a fourth round draft choice, 112th overall, by the Nashville Predators in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. After graduating from high school at Shattuck-St. Mary's, Stepan apprenticed for one season with the Waterloo Blackhawks of the USHL, before heading to Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minnesota, where he is currently in his rookie campaign with the Mavericks.
Recently, Stepan was added to the United States World Juniors pre-tournament camp for an opportunity to represent the United States at the World Juniors tournament. With that in mind, it seems like a good time to take a closer look at how Stepan is currently playing, and trying to what his future potential might be. I took notes on Stepan on Saturday December, 7th, in MInnesota State's 3-0 win over Northern Michigan. Here's a look at what I saw.
Stepan, like most of Minnesota State's team, got off to a very slow start offensively this season. Stepan was held off the scoresheet in his first four collegiate games. He started to get things going with points in two consecutive games before an upper body injury knocked him out of action for two weeks. Since coming back from injury, Stepan has scored five points in his last six games, and is starting to show some of the offensive abilities that made him such an effective scorer in the USHL last season. His current scoring line is 4 goals and 3 assists in 12 games played.
On Saturday evening, Stepan was centering a line flanked by wings Dylan Margonari and Johnny McInnis. Minnesota State doesn't really have a true first line, necessarily. Their top three lines are all relatively equal, and whichever line is playing best that night usually sees a little extra time. On Friday evening, that was the Margonari-Stepan-McInnis line; on Saturday, it was a different line. Stepan's line still saw about 15 even strength shifts on Saturday night. Stepan is also on Minnesota State's second power play unit. The Mavericks only saw two and a half power plays in the game, so Stepan only saw two shifts with the man advantage. Stepan is also capable of contributing on the penalty kill, but the Mavericks were only shorthanded for a few seconds on Saturday, and never had to set up a penalty kill. In total, Stepan probably saw 12-15 minutes of ice time on Saturday.
Offensively, Stepan is a player that likes to keep things pretty simple. When he gets the puck on his stick, he'd much rather make a quick pass to a teammate and play off the puck, rather than trying to do too much with the puck on his stick. His most effective period offensively was the first period. He opened the game with an excellent pass in the neutral zone to Dylan Margonari. Stepan's pass allowed Margonari to catch the puck in stride and split the Northern Michigan defense for a quality scoring chance. He also showed some nice vision making good passes out of the corner on the power play that helped set up some scoring chances.
Once he gives up the puck to a teammate, Stepan is very good at playing without the puck. He showed an excellent willingness to skate hard to the net and absorb physical contact. On one such play in the first period, he was taken hard into the post to set up an offensive zone face-off. The next shift, he showed no hesitation in crashing the net again going after a rebound shot. Stepan was tied up by two defensemen, which opened up space for Margonari to clean up the rebound for an easy goal. (The goal was overturned upon video review after it was determined that the net was knocked off its moorings prior to the puck going in).
Stepan also isn't afraid to shoot the puck. He finished Saturday's game with five shot attempts, one of those coming on the power play, and three of those shots landing on net. His best scoring chance came in the first period when he got a puck on his backhand in close on the net. He tried to lift the puck into the upper corner, but was blocked by the goalie. In the second period, he fired a hard wrist shot from the left face-off dot that was heavy enough to create a rebound opportunity.
Two weeks ago, Stepan made the move from playing on the wing to center. That increase in responsibility reflects a growing confidence in his abilities on the defensive end of the ice. He wasn't overly tested defensively on a night where Northern Michigan only had 17 shots on goal, and only 39 total shot attempts, but for the most part, was pretty sound in terms of picking up his defensive assignment. As you might expect from such a young player, he's not overly physical along the boards, and he misplayed the puck a few times in his own, but both of those could be chalked up to youth, and should develop in time.
Because he recently made the move to center, there's not a lot of face-off data for him. Stepan is 25 for 50 on face-overall this season, but won 10 of 16 draws on Saturday night. There weren't a lot of really critical face-offs late in the game. But Stepan did have one pretty important face-off in the defensive end at the end of a long shift after his line was not allowed to change due to a puck going over the glass. Stepan won the draw cleanly, which allowed his line to get off the ice.
As mentioned above, Stepan isn't an overly physical player, but also isn't afraid to back down. He got tangled up with a Northern Michigan defenseman after a whistle and the two ended up with matching unsportsmanlike minors after a little pushing and a lot of words exchanged. Stepan has five minor penalties for 10 total PIMs, with three of those penalties being earned in after-the-whistle type scrums like that.
My overall impression is that Stepan definitely fits the mold of a lot of players that the United States has taken to the World Juniors over the years. He's not the flashiest, or most exciting player, and likely wouldn't score a lot for the Americans. But he would provide an excellent, versatile two-way forward that could effective playing on the fourth line, or be ready to step into any role should someone get hurt as the team's 13th forward. That doesn't necessarily mean he will make the squad. There's a lot of other qualified candidates to choose from as well. But I wouldn't be apprehensive if he ended up taking the ice for the US in Malmo.
As far as his pro potential, Stepan doesn't seem likely to ever become a top six forward at the NHL level. But he's the type of player that should provide value--especially if he can continue to play at center-- even if he isn't a big scorer. He's still got a long ways to go in terms of physical maturity and refining his game. It will probably be a few years before he makes the jump to pro hockey. But the upside is there to make an effective third line forward at the NHL level some day, which all told, is pretty good for a player selected in the 4th round of the NHL Draft.