Q&A with Derek Stepan

By Alexander Frecon

University of Wisconsin-Madison freshman Derek Stepan claims to be young and still learning the ropes, but the 18-year-old center seems more like a seasoned veteran. Selected 51st overall by the New York Rangers in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, Stepan has made his presence known in the Madison, leading all freshmen in scoring with 5 goals and 15 assists for 20 points in 26 games.

Stepan is a strong skater who has a high hockey IQ and who takes on whatever task set forth to him by his coach. In a notoriously talented WCHA conference, Stepan has excelled, posting 13 of his 20 points against conference opponents. At 6’0 and 176 lbs, Stepan has the work ethic and speed to cause havoc in the offensive zone and the skills to set up a play or finish one on his own. It is no coincidence that he led Shattuck-St. Mary’s in scoring with 111 points in 2007-08.

He has been rewarded for his performance this season, being given extensive power-play time by coach Mike Eaves. In recent months, Stepan has also received time on the penalty kill, a testament to his responsible play and ability to both ways.

Hockey’s Future caught up with Stepan after practice in Madison, Wisconsin.

HF: You’ve put on some weight over the last year, what kind of training did you do to accomplish this? Has it translated to your play on the ice?

DS: A lot of training that I did was over the summer. Towards the end of my Shattuck year I trained with Coach Eaves son, Benny, who’s at Shattuck. That kind of started it all and this summer I trained Jim Snider here in Madison. That helped me a lot. On the ice it makes play so much easier, being able to be stronger in the corners and being able to hold your ground a bit makes a big difference in this league.

HF: Who has been particularly helpful for you as a freshman?

DS: One of the guys that has helped me out a lot is Mike Davies. He’s my linemate right now too and I lived with him this summer. He showed me the ropes and let me test the waters. The other guy who was pretty big – who I actually was playing with in the beginning of the season before he got hurt – was Ben Street. He was one of the other guys who helped me acclimate to Wisconsin.

HF: In February of 2008, you skated for U.S. Under-17 Team at the 2008 Vlad Dzurilla Tournament in Slovakia, what was that experience like? How would you compare the international level to the NCAA? Did you notice a very different style of play?

DS: That was a great experience for me – it was a lot of fun. I got to wear that USA jersey which is always a blast and going overseas is always fun. I loved every second of it. International play is a lot different than NCAA play, you can ask anyone who plays hockey, International play is a lot more free form, it’s very skilled, and it’s a lot less physical. In comparison, the NCAA is very nitty-gritty and you have to score a lot of goals around the net. European style is just very fast and skilled. All those guys use their speed and skill so well.

HF: How are you clicking with your linemates this season? What are your different styles of play?

DS: Right now my linemates and I are playing really well. Mike Davies, Jordy Murray and I just seem to be clickin’. Jordy and I went to high school together we were roommates together in Shattuck so we already have a bit of connection and now we’re roommates here. Mikey just added to it so everyone seems to fit in perfectly. Mikey is one of those guys who is a goal scorer and a playmaker; he makes a lot of really great passes. Jordy is just a pit-bull, he just goes, goes, goes and isn’t scared of anyone but he’s also very skilled and can make things happen. All three of us are very similar but we all have our unique skills. Jordy and I are freshmen just trying to figure stuff out and Mikey is helping us along the way.

HF: You’re known more as a playmaker but you’ve proven that you can score. Do you find yourself leaning more towards a shot or a pass when in the offensive zone?

DS: That question is tough! It’s one of those things when you’re in the zone it’s an instinct thing. I’d say though most of the time you’re going to see me pass before I shoot that puck. But there are times when I’ll take the shot – I’m a shooter too. But for the most part this season I’ve been looking more to dish it off before I shoot it.

HF: What would you like to accomplish by season’s end?

DS: The main goal is to obviously win the national championship with the team. Knock on wood. But I want to continue to learn and continue to grow.

HF: What aspect of your game have you been focusing on improving the most this season?

DS: I think it comes back to that question about training, getting stronger and learning how to play better without the puck in the defensive zone. With the help of Coach Eaves I have gotten better. I still have a long ways to go but I’m getting there

HF: What hobbies help distract you from hockey when you need a break?

DS: Haha. Actually lately I’ve been playing Halo 3. My roommates and I actually had our box broken but Jordy fixed it up this winter so whenever we get a little worked up we put that game on and we start playing and it’s nice to relax. We play a lot of video games, it’s pretty much everyone’s relaxer I bet.

HF: What was it like hearing your name called during the draft this past summer?

DS: I watched it on the NHL Network. I didn’t expect to go as early as I did, so when people always ask me why I didn’t go (to Ottawa), I tell them, “I didn’t even expect to be that high. I didn’t want to go over there just to watch six rounds.” But that morning I just turned on the TV just to see what was happening. I actually didn’t see my name – I got a phone call from the Rangers. They told me “congratulations” and that I had a plane ticket the next to fly out there for training camp.

HF: Has playing on the power play as a freshman affected your confidence? What do you try to do on the power play?

DS: The power play is one of those things that I’ve always liked playing – it’s one of my strengths. It’s boosted my confidence a lot having Coach Eaves put me on the power play right from the beginning of the season. I’m starting to figure it out though, right now I’m the guy that just gets the puck up to the top and then Jamie McBain does the rest. It’s good that Coach Eaves put that confidence in me. It’s helped me a lot.

HF: How has playing under a defense-oriented coach affected your game? How has coach Mike Eaves been helpful in your development?

DS: When I committed here I knew what kind of program I was coming into. This was what I wanted and needed and I knew it would help me grow. I knew that a defensive-oriented coach would help me a lot especially because he wouldn’t take away all of the offensive aspect. Coach Eaves tells me to play defense first and then if I get down there I can take care of my offensive. He’s a great coach and has helped me out so much. I had a great coach in high school named Coach Ward, and then came here and now I have an even better coach. It’s great stuff.

HF: You grew up in Hastings Minnesota. Did you start playing at an early age?

DS: My dad worked at the Civic Arena in Hastings when I was younger so I remember I’d go out there bright and early before anyone would get there and skate around. I mean at that time I thought nothing of it – it was just about being able to skate around. It wasn’t until later that I started playing with other kids, and I wasn’t that good, just kind of falling around. But you know I got better. My best friend from Hastings actually had this really great outdoor rink at his house and so we would just live out there.

HF: Were you a Gopher fan growing up? Was it kind of awkward having to compete against a team you rooted for as a kid?

DS: Yeah, I watched them growing up. Every weekend you’d order some pizza and watch the Gopher game. But as I grew up and got away I couldn’t really get the opportunity to watch games so I slowly departed from it. Wisconsin has always been a place I’ve wanted to be at. It’s not weird at all for me. It’s like playing any other team because everyone has buddies they played with or played against. Probably the most awkward thing is when you strap on your skates against a guy that you played with last year. But I mean it’s fun, you compete on the ice but afterward you’re friends again.