On Sunday, Derek Stepan filed for salary arbitration by the 5 PM deadline. The 25-year old Rangers’ top center is coming off a good fifth season. His 16 goals and 39 assists for 55 points over 68 games was two fewer than a career high 57 points he had in a full 82 during ’13-14. The 39 assists ranked just behind Derick Brassard (41) and 55 points were third best trailing only Brassard (60) and Rick Nash (69). He also ranked second to Nash in plus/minus (26) and was third in postseason scoring with 12 points (5-7-12).
The Rangers are in a cap crunch. Having already subtracted key third liner Carl Hagelin to free up necessary space, they have approximately $10.8 million left to re-sign Stepan along with key restricted’s Emerson Etem, Jesper Fast and J.T. Miller. I’m discounting depth signings Luke Adam and Brian Gibbons who are listed by nhlnumbers.com. They’re ticketed for Hartford which frees up another $1.2 million with each signing for identical one-year $600,000 two-way contracts.
It is assumed that Stepan’s price range should be within $6 to $6.5 million. In the final year of a bridge contract that expired, he made $3.85 million with an average cap hit of $3.075 million. With him two seasons away from unrestricted free agency, new Rangers GM Jeff Gorton has a important decision ahead. He must decide if Stepan is worth re-signing to a long-term deal that’ll buy up some free agent years. Stepan turns 27 on June 18, 2017. If they go to arbitration, he’ll likely get a two-year reward which the team can walk away from. Highly unlikely considering Stepan’s value to the club. He’s not only a top six forward but a smart playmaking pivot who is responsible in all three zones. A trusted top penalty killer, he teamed with Nash to form a dangerous combination with the two combining for six shorthanded goals.
The only aspect of Stepan’s game that’s been subpar is his work on faceoffs. Between the dots, he’s won 44.0 percent (2337-and-2970) for his career. If he ever improved to near 50, there would be nothing to critique. Even so, he’s proven capable of winning key draws. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault trusts him enough to do a good job.
There’s not much to dislike with Stepan, who’s totaled 252 points (89-163-252) and a plus-85 rating in 362 career games. You know what you’re getting with the smart Hastings, Minnesota native creating chances for teammates while being strong defensively. He’s been everything I thought since following him lead Team USA to a gold medal at the 2010 Under-20 World Junior Championship. Not only is he important to the team’s future but also has formed great chemistry with former USA linemate Chris Kreider. The 24-year old power forward continues to develop scoring 21 goals in the regular season and seven more in the playoffs. A first line of Kreider, Stepan and Miller could be the way to go for the coaching staff. Especially with the 22-year old 2011 first round pick proving himself to Vigneault who used him on all four lines. Miller plays with edge and is a breakout candidate.
Stepan is also a team leader wearing an ‘A’ as one of the alternate captains. With Martin St. Louis retired, Stepan will again be looked upon for leadership. Given some of his clutch play during the second round against the Capitals where he set up Kreider’s tying goal and Ryan McDonagh’s Game 5 overtime winner along with his Game 7 series clincher in sudden death, that shouldn’t be a problem.
When you factor everything in, it would be hard to replace Stepan. Even as some have panicked suggesting trading him due to Ryan O’Reilly’s absurd seven-year $52.5 million contract with the Sabres, that was a separate situation. When Buffalo acquired him, he had already made $6 million due to the Avalanche matching the Flames’ offer sheet. Stepan should cost less than the $7.5 million on average O’Reilly will make. With everything being equal, I would suggest a six-year deal topping out at $39 million which would average out to $6.5 million. That’s more than fair.
That should leave Gorton a little over $4 million for Etem, Fast and Miller who all have no arbitration rights. They’ll probably bridge Fast and Miller. Not sure about Etem who if he agrees to a one-year deal has much to prove.
The biggest issue for the Rangers is they’ll be right up against the $71.4 million cap. The most likely candidates who could be cut or traded are Tanner Glass ($1.45 million) and Kevin Klein ($2.9 million). Why did they go give $1.1 million to Viktor Stalberg? Oscar Lindberg and Ryan Bourque deserve chances to make the roster. I just don’t get it. If Vigneault realizes that Glass is the odd man out, they can put him on waivers which he’ll likely clear and play for Hartford. Trading Klein doesn’t make sense unless Brady Skjei or Dylan McIlrath prove ready. Besides, Klein had a good year which has been forgotten due to an uneven playoffs returning from a fractured left arm. Raphael Diaz is your classic seventh defenseman.
The Rangers could be dangerously close to the cutoff. A place you don’t want to be. Just ask the Kings who at a critical point of last season fielded a incomplete roster. If there are injuries, their depth could be seriously tested. There wouldn’t be many options. I’ll get to that in another post.