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Derek Stepan struggling to produce points in No. 1 center role

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Coyotes acquired Derek Stepan this summer to become their No. 1 center. He can match up against other teams’ top talent, he cleans up a lot of the messes created by his younger linemates, he can play in all situations and it’s clear after six weeks of the season that he possesses natural leadership qualities.

The one knock on Stepan is that he doesn’t produce points like a No. 1 center needs to, averaging 55 points the past four seasons with the New York Rangers.

That shortcoming was highlighted on Saturday when the Winnipeg Jets came to town with elite No. 1 center Mark Scheifele in tow.

Scheifele scored the game-winning goal on a power play 2:31 into the third period, and he assisted on Kyle Connor’s goal at 8:01 to lift Winnipeg to a 4-1 victory at Gila River Arena. Scheifele has 13 points (seven goals, six assists) in his past seven games. The Jets are 5-1-1 in that stretch.

“Scheifele in the slot, top shelf, in the net,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said of the game-winning goal. “He’s one of the best players in the league and he puts it in the net. He doesn’t need many chances. He didn’t have much early in the first couple periods but you’ve just got to give that guy one chance.”

That’s why elite, skilled centers are so vital to a team’s success. They don’t need a lot of chances and they can lift a team up when others aren’t producing. They can make up for a team’s shortcomings.

Stepan has been in a production funk. He had gone nine games without a point before an assist on Zac Rinaldo’s first-period goal, and he was painfully aware of it.

“I was disappointed I wasn’t able to find the score sheet when I thought that I had some opportunities to get rewarded,” said Stepan, who has two goals and eight points this season. “It eats at you. It doesn’t go unnoticed but you just continue to work with your linemates and you try to find a way to get out of it.

“When you’re in it, you just beat up on yourself but you just have to understand that with hard work you will come out of it.”

Stepan embraced a new role and a bigger challenge after the trade to Arizona. He wanted the chance to take on bigger responsibilities in all areas. Despite success in most of those areas, he understands the Coyotes need him to hang more numbers on the score sheet.

“I don’t think my game has been the way I want it,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get myself comfortable, trying to find my new role because I play a new role here with Toc. I’m trying to get myself into it and trying to find a way that gets me rolling a little bit. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to produce offensively and that’s disappointing.”

“Its frustrating and in a sense it’s embarrassing that I haven’t able to produce as much as I’d want to but as I said earlier, there’s only one real thing I can do is strap the boots on and go to work and hopefully the bounces start coming your way.”

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