To say that Derek Stepan and Danny Kristo have a little bit in common would be quite the understatement. They were both raised in Minnesota, playing with and against one another growing up. They were both selected in the second round of the 2008 NHL Draft — Stepan 51st overall by the Rangers and Kristo five picks later by the Canadiens. They were teammates and linemates when the United States captured the gold medal at the 2010 World Junior Championships. They faced each other in college — Stepan playing for the University of Wisconsin and Kristo at North Dakota. Now, after a trade that brought Kristo to New York two weeks ago, they are Ranger teammates.
Oh, and did we mention that they were born on the same exact day — June 18, 1990?
"We've known each other a long time, and still hang out during the summers, so it's pretty cool to have another buddy on the team," Stepan said of Kristo, who called the Rangers 2013 top scorer shortly after receiving word he'd been traded to New York for Christian Thomas.
So it would seem that no one with the Rangers would be as qualified as Stepan to provide a scouting report on the team's new winger. In fact, according to the Rangers Director of Player Personnel Gordie Clark, Rangers brass reached out to Stepan to find out more about Kristo.
"First of all, the guy just competes," explained Stepan. "He's got this compete level to him that's extremely high. He loves winning hockey games, loves being a part of winning teams. He's got great speed, and sees the ice extremely well. And obviously he can score goals."
Said Clark with a laugh when told of Stepan's assessment, "I think Step would make a good scout!"
Kristo is coming off a phenomenal 26-goal, 52-point senior season at North Dakota, one that was Hobey Baker Award-worthy. That followed a 19-goal, 45-point junior campaign, and helped build a point-per-game four-year career at North Dakota.
His international resume impresses the Rangers quite a bit, too. Kristo played in the 2013 World Championships for Team USA, notching three points in ten games playing with and against mostly older professional players. And of course in 2010 he played a major role as Team USA captured gold in Canada at the World Juniors, scoring five goals and totaling eight points in seven games.
"That was some of the best hockey of my career, those two weeks, and Danny played a big part in that," said Stepan, who was the tournament's leading scorer with 14 points (4-10-14). "We built some serious chemistry, and we just followed that wave the entire tournament, which is really hard to do, to build such a chemistry in such a short tournament."
Adds Kristo, "I ended up playing with Stepan and we clicked right away as far as our chemistry. Our line just kind of took off the whole tournament. It was so much fun, and he was playing at such a high level. That WJC was such a good time for both of us. It is a great memory, for sure"
Now the pair of 23 year-olds have the opportunity to forge new ground as teammates with the Rangers. Stepan already has three years of NHL experience under his belt — including a team-best 44 points in the truncated 48-game season a year ago — so he will be there to help Kristo transition into an NHL player. Kristo did play nine games at the AHL level after college ended last season, but he is well aware that it will be a huge benefit having Stepan — as well as others he knows like Ryan McDonagh and Chris Kreider — there helping him out.
"I'll tell Danny a lot of the same things I was told by veteran players when I came to New York, come out and play hard. There's a reason why you are here, so put your best foot forward and do anything and everything you can to make a positive impression," explained Stepan, who has 140 career points in 212 NHL games.
With the possibility that either one or both of Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin could still be rehabbing from shoulder surgery at the start of the regular season, Kristo joins other younger forwards like Kreider, Jesper Fast, J.T. Miller, and Marek Hrivik in battling for spots on the opening night roster. It is an opportunity Kristo is already seriously preparing for.
"It's exciting that I have such a good opportunity, and I think that's why summers are so important as far as training, getting faster and stronger before going to training camp," explained Kristo. "I am looking forward to going to my first one and try and make the most of it when I get there."
And Danny Kristo will have a familiar face in Derek Stepan by his side working out this summer and taking part in September's training camp. Really it seems it shouldn't be any other way.