Stepan time? Rangers send Mueller back to AHL

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Another positive sign that Derek Stepan is nearing his season debut — on Thursday, the Rangers sent center Chris Mueller back to AHL Hartford.

Mueller, who has two points in seven games this year while averaging over 10 minutes a night, was recalled in mid-October and had been a pretty steady lineup presence under head coach Alain Vigneault. As such, his departure suggests a path is being cleared for Stepan to play for the first time this season when the Rangers take on the Leafs in Toronto on Saturday night.

The 24-year-old has been out since the preseason to a fractured fibula, weakening a center position that was already a trouble spot for New York. The Rangers didn’t have a ton of depth down the middle to begin with and, since Stepan went down, have been operating with the likes of Mueller, Derick Brassard and Dominic Moore, even giving career winger Martin St. Louis some minutes at center.