Rangers

Hartnett: Rangers Won’t Cave, So Stepan Should Settle On Bridge Deal

Stepan Can Hold Out If He Desires, But He Won't Get The Better Of Sather
Derek Stepan (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Derek Stepan (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

Twenty-three-year-old center Derek Stepan was an extremely valuable ingredient during the bygone era in Rangers history under previous head coach John Tortorella. His game is continuing to flourish, and he will be a crucial component of what the Blueshirts wish to achieve under new head coach Alain Vigneault.

Tortorella came pretty close to tasting sweet success. Had Adam Henrique not scored that memorable series-clinching overtime goal for the Devils in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, the impassioned Tortorella might still be calling Madison Square Garden his workplace.

The “coach swap” was completed in late June when Tortorella was announced as Vancouver Canucks head coach — just four days after his predecessor Vigneault was introduced to the New York media as the newest bench boss of the Rangers.

It’s now Vigneault’s task to guide the Blueshirts over the next hurdle by reaching the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final since 1994. The soft-spoken Québécois coach will lean equally hard on Stepan as the demanding and fiery Tortorella did.

RANGERS AND STEPAN IN THE MIDST OF A STANDOFF; HOLDOUT IS A STRONG POSSIBILITY

Currently, Stepan and the Rangers are in a prolonged contractual standoff. Rangers general manager Glen Sather is only willing to offer his restricted free agent center a two-year bridge contract. Stepan’s camp is seeking a long-term deal, possibly in excess of four years. Barring unforeseen and uncharacteristically quick progress, Stepan will reportedly not report to Rangers camp and will hold out.

Former Rangers winger Brandon Dubinsky held out in September 2009. His holdout only lasted eight days. Dubinsky was seeking a long-term deal beyond two years. He didn’t get the better of Sather, eventually settling on a two-year bridge contract worth a total value of $3.7 million.

Stepan does not have a leg to stand on, and the Rangers have held the power cards throughout the summer.

Sather’s strong hand was boosted late Tuesday night when 22-year-old restricted free agent center Nazem Kadri agreed a two-year bridge deal worth $2.9 million per year as reported by Bob McKenzie of TSN. Upon hearing the news, Sather probably produced a wide, beaming grin and might have reached for one of his trademark cigars.

It’s entirely understandable why Stepan feels he’s deserving of a deal similar to the six-year deals signed by close friend Ryan McDonagh and rival center Adam Henrique of the New Jersey Devils. The Hastings, Minnesota native has demonstrated remarkable durability throughout the first three years of his burgeoning NHL career.

Stepan has not missed a regular season or playoff game since making his thrilling hat-trick debut in Buffalo on October 9, 2010. Stepan participated in all 48 games last season and averaged over 20 minutes of total ice time per game. He led all Rangers skaters with 44 points and his plus/minus of +25 was a team high.

It’s really all a matter of when Stepan and agent Matt Oates budge. I’m expecting that Stepan will cave sooner rather than later, and agree a two-year bridge deal in the range of $3 to $3.4 million in average annual value.

Michael Del Zotto was in a similar situation last January — and ended up agreeing a two-year, $5.1 million bridge deal hours before last year’s training camp began.

The Rangers will have to do some work of their own to get their cap situation down to accommodate a new Stepan contract. At the moment, the Rangers have roughly $2.1 million in remaining salary cap space.

Brian Boyle’s $1.7 million salary could be attractive to many clubs seeking a checking line center or penalty kill/face-off specialist. The team could also place either captain Ryan Callahan or winger Carl Hagelin on long-term injured reserve list to gain temporary cap room. Callahan is being paid $4.275 million per year, while Hagelin is earning $2.25 million.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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