The New York Rangers are in a salary-cap squeeze.
With only $2,180,833 million in cap space, general manager Glen Sather doesn't have much financial flexibility to sign No. 1 center and leading scorer from last season Derek Stepan.
According to Larry Brooks of the New York Post, the two sides still have some work to do before a resolution is reached. At the moment, the 23-year-old forward not being at Alain Vigneault's first training camp as Rangers head coach (which starts on Wednesday) is a real possibility.
It's no surprise that Sather is holding a firm ground in negotiations. The Rangers would prefer to give Stepan a "bridge contract" of two years before signing him long term. This would allow the team to have a large sample size of production at the NHL level to determine if the 23-year-old is worth $5-plus million per season.
While this is certainly a smart approach for a franchise to take, there is no reason to play games with Stepan's agent, because we have already seen enough quality performances in his three NHL seasons to suggest that he's worthy of a long-term contract right now.
As the chart below shows, Stepan has been a consistent scorer with New York and has improved his points-per-game average in every season.
Not only has Stepan showed steady improvement, he's also been a durable player throughout his career. He's never missed a game and keeps himself in great shape to avoid injuries. His vision, playmaking skill and high hockey IQ are just three parts of his amazing skill set. Stepan is also a reliable two-way player who tallied just 12 PIM despite receiving 20:55 of ice time per game last year.
In Vigneault's uptempo, offensive-minded style of hockey, Stepan will likely flourish into a player who produces at or near a point-per-game level.
But the primary reason why New York needs to sign him long term is because the team doesn't have any other players on the NHL roster or among the organization's prospect pool who are capable of being a No. 1 center.
Derick Brassard is a talented young player, but he's more suited for a third-line center role. Veteran forward Brad Richards is coming off a disappointing 2013 season and without a bounce-back year, he could be bought out next season.
Stepan's emergence as a legitimate first-line center was one of the best storylines of the Rangers' 2013 season, and because this type of player is difficult to find, locking them up as soon as possible is ideal. A No. 1 center has been a need of New York's for a long time, and luckily for Sather, one of his homegrown players has filled this role instead of a high-priced free agent.
If the Blueshirts sign the former Minnesota native to a two-year bridge deal and he dominates offensively in that span, re-signing him long term will be much more expensive than it would be right now.
It's important for New York to sign Stepan long term for the lowest possible salary cap hit because there are nine or 10 core players for Sather to re-sign after the 2013-14 season. Even if the cap ceiling increases quite a bit for 2014-15, the Rangers are still going to need as much cap space as possible for next summer.
For the Blueshirts to sign Stepan to a long-term contract worth between $4-5.5 million annually, some roster moves will have to be made. Brian Boyle (expiring contract with $1.7 million cap hit) and Taylor Pyatt (expiring contract with $1.55 million cap hit) are two possible forwards who could be traded to free up space. On the blue line, Anton Stralman would likely have value on the trade market because of his low cap hit.
The route of freeing up cap space via trades may take time, but locking up Stepan now and not risking that signing him long term will cost a lot more when a bridge contract is finished would be the best decision for Sather to make.
So many teams around the league have spent several years searching for a No. 1 center. The Rangers used to be one of those teams and repeatedly struck out in free agency with the failed Chris Drury, Scott Gomez and Brad Richards signings.
Now that Stepan, a young, reliable, two-way center has emerged as the long-term solution for this important role, it's time for Sather to make the necessary moves to ensure a long-term contract is completed with the former second-round pick.
A bridge contract is normally the best course of action for teams, but not in Stepan's case.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL columnist at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, the 2012 NHL playoffs and the 2013 NHL draft. All salary information via CapGeek.