There can be no doubt Derek Stepan is vital to the future of the New York Rangers. When it comes to talent, effort and putting the puck in the net, Stepan is one of the most dependable players on the team.
So why are the Rangers treating him like chattel?
Because Stepan is a restricted free agent and the Rangers are not compelled to pay him a big-money contract. They can play hardball with him, as hockey insider Bob McKenzie tweeted, and offer him a short-term deal with the promise that they will give him a big-time contract in the future.
That's what vice president and general manager Glen Sather can do. But is that what they really want to do? Do they want to push around one of their best young assets because they can? Do they want to hide behind the salary cap when they have a new coach coming in to raise the team's overall level and install an offense that will allow the Rangers to compete with the best teams in the Eastern Conference?
That's just what Alain Vigneault wants to do. The new Rangers coach has a proven track record from his four years with the Montreal Canadiens and five years with the Vancouver Canucks. He will urge and cajole the Rangers to play a more complete game and not just try to block shots and play defense the way they did under deposed head coach John Tortorella.
That style simply did not work and nobody knows that better than Sather, who saw his players start to lose their fire and enthusiasm under Tortorella's hard-nosed regime.
Vigneault wants to start fresh and he wants all his players on board. That includes Stepan, who is coming off a season in which he scored a team-high 44 points (18 goals and 26 assists) and finished with an impressive plus-25 rating.
Stepan did this despite Tortorella's limiting style. What could he do under a coach who knows how to bring out the best in offensive-minded players?
It could be a huge season for Stepan and other creative players who could blossom under a coach capable of building a productive power play and who doesn't turn his nose up at offensive hockey.
But the Rangers are not helping out Vigneault right now because they want Stepan to sign what is called a bridge contract.
Since he can't sign elsewhere without his new team losing prohibitive compensation, the Rangers believe they can force Stepan's hand and make him take short money for a year or two.
In the end, they probably can. The 23-year-old Stepan made $875,000 last year, and the Rangers would like him to sign a deal in the range of two years and $5.1 million, similar to the one that Michael Del Zotto signed when his entry-level deal expired two years ago.
The Rangers can whine all they want about the salary cap—they know they can get Stepan to accept their deal and probably feel good about it. After all, his salary is going to more than double.
But he is important to the team, perhaps as important as Ryan McDonagh, who signed a six-year, $28.2 million contract in the offseason. Callahan is an up-and-coming defensive stud, but is he really worth more than Stepan?
Stepan has already had three productive seasons. He is only going to get better from here and deserves to be compensated fairly.
If it was one year or even two, that would be a different story. You don't have three productive years if you are not the real deal.
Stepan will probably put a positive face on this when all is said and done. But inside he will be chafed.
The other injured party is Vigneault. He wants his best and most creative players to be happy and productive. That's how he will get the most out of them.
The Rangers are being short-sighted, and it could hurt one of their best players and their new coach. They need to rethink their tactics and up their offer to Stepan, and they must do it without delay.