Derek Stepan, a restricted free agent, has yet to reach an agreement with the New York Rangers. As a result, he did not report to training camp, has been temporarily removed from the Rangers roster and is unlikely to be on the opening night roster, according to TSN. The two sides are reportedly negotiating over a difference in salary of approximately $500,000.
Stepan is seeking a two-year, $3.5 million per season deal, while the Rangers are looking to extend an offer no higher than two years and $3 million per season.
Although Stepan is quickly emerging as the premiere center for the Rangers as well as a future franchise player, holding out is only hurting the team and his own professional development.
If negotiations go south, the Rangers certainly have plenty of other options down the middle in Brad Richards, Derick Brassard, Brian Boyle and Dominic Moore.
Stepan's absence has even led new Rangers' bench boss Alain Vigneault to say that "right now, I’m functioning as if he’s not here."
Last year, in a lockout-abbreviated season, Stepan put up enormous numbers: 18 goals and 26 assists for 44 points in 48 games played—falling just short of his 51-point total from 2011-12 in 82 games played.
There's no questioning his talent and skill, but with a reduced salary cap and the Rangers choosing not to buy out Brad Richards—who has a $6.66 million average annual value through 2020—there simply is little the Rangers organization can do to accommodate the big pay raise Stepan and his agent are demanding.
As it stands, the Rangers have only $2,180,833 available in cap space, according to CapGeek.com. It is in everyone's best interests—Stepan and the Rangers as a whole—to quickly end this holdout in favor of a "bridge" contract and move forward. By signing a short-term "bridge" contract, which would keep Stepan as a Blueshirt, he has the opportunity to prove to himself, the team and the organization that he truly deserves the big payday.
Bridge contracts are the new reality of a reduced-cap environment but are also effective motivators for players before management commits big dollars long-term.
Before Rangers' general manager Glen Sather signs off on a massive deal, he wants to make sure it's money well spent and not a fluke.
“I am not going to give a long-term contract at this stage, and he is a good player, a smart player, a good team guy,” Sather said of Stepan earlier this summer. “There is certainly nothing wrong with him, but you need to wait a little while before you get the big bucks.”
In just a couple years, the NHL salary cap may expand to $90 million, according to James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail. If that is the case, Sather will easily be able to extend the big pay raise Stepan is due, and his career performance will likely be even more impressive than it is today.
There should be no doubt in two years that Stepan should be a Ranger for his entire career, and he should be rewarded financially for it. But right now, the money isn't there—and Stepan has more to prove before he deserves "the big bucks," as Sather stated.
With little to no negotiating leverage at this time, Stepan has one option: sign the bridge contract.