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Stepan learning, thriving in new role with Canes

Derek Stepan isn’t playing every single day for the Hurricanes, but he’s performing and handling with a veteran ease.

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

In his 800th NHL game Saturday afternoon in PNC Arena, Carolina Hurricanes’ forward Derek Stepan scored his 500th NHL point on a wonderful assist from behind the net to Steven Lorentz.

And while that moment of on-ice production from Stepan may have felt normal for the 12-year NHL veteran, nothing about this season has been normal for 2008 second-round draft pick of the New York Rangers.

For the first time in his career, Stepan isn’t an everyday player for the Hurricanes. He signed with Carolina this past offseason on a one-year deal worth $1.35 million, and he’s appeared in 42 of the Canes’ 59 games. Since the beginning of February, Stepan has played in just eight of Carolina’s 17 games.

“It’s not an easy job, that’s for sure,” Stepan said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever been in that situation, so I’m learning as well. I’m learning what are the things that can help me so that when my number is in the lineup I’m ready to play. I wish I had a solid answer for you, but I don’t really know what the right thing is. It’s a day-by-day situation, and when your number is ready to go then you come in and do the best you can.”

But he played well in his 800th game Saturday, a win over the Flyers. He played again Sunday, slotting in for a tough loss against the Penguins. And when Stepan plays, the Canes are generally pretty good.

In the 42 games where Stepan has been in the lineup, Carolina is 30-9-3 (.750). When Stepan sits, the Canes are 11-4-2 (.706). The difference is marginal, and there’s a lot more to it than Stepan’s inclusion, but the Canes win a higher percentage of games when Stepan plays.

And his numbers as a whole this year are pretty good. He’s got 15 points, more than both Lorentz and Jordan Martinook who have played more games than him in a similar role. He’s got a 53.2 CF%, and his plus/minus is an even 0.

But Stepan’s per-60 numbers are even better. He’s got 1.02 xG/60, the fourth-best mark on the entire team behind only Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and Nino Niederreiter. His 0.90 goals/60 is sixth on the Canes, and his 1.94 points/60 are better than Jesper Fast, Jordan Staal, Martinook and Lorentz.

Stepan’s lines have been productive, too. Stepan has played on two different lines for more than 50 minutes of ice time, and both have been solid. With Martinook and Lorentz, Stepan has a 60.8 xG% as a line. With Lorentz and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Stepan has a 58.5 xG% as a line.

The Canes veteran fourth-line option in Stepan has been in and out all year, but he’s found himself sitting a little bit more over the past few weeks. But still, he’s putting up good numbers and stepping up to the challenge whenever he is in.

“In my 30-whatever years I’ve been in this league, he’s probably the best I’ve ever seen at handling it,” said Rod Brind’Amour. “Plain and simple. He’s been a pro every step of the way. It’s not easy, especially with a guy through his career has never really had a thought of being in this kind of role. I’ve never seen anybody handle it better.”

So, should Stepan be playing more? Maybe.

But at the same time, Martinook, Lorentz and Seth Jarvis are putting up good numbers as well, because everyone on the Hurricanes puts up good analytical lines because the team is just so good.

As the season progresses, and the games get tighter, the talent and experience of Stepan could be valuable. He’s adopted his role well, and there’s a positive, too, as Stepan may even be a step fresher as the postseason nears.