Will Stepan Deal Mirror That of the Avs’ O’Reilly?
One by one, the restricted free agent chips have fallen into place this offseason.
First, Mats Zuccarello signed a one-year deal that will keep him flying up and down the Garden ice next season. Then, stud winger Chris Kreider inked a two-year bridge deal that will carry though the 2015-16 schedule. And with the hope of adding Derick Brassard to the “kept him” list on or before his scheduled arbitration date on Monday, the Blueshirts can now turn their attention to the next group of key UFAs and RFAs on the horizon.
Topping that list? That would be first-line pivot Derek Stepan, who heads into the final year of a two-year contract he signed in September of 2013. But what exactly will Stepan command? Is there a measuring stick for Rangers GM Glen Sather to work with?
Saying that Stepan puts up the type of numbers or better than he did last year (career-best 57 points in playing all 82 games and 15 more in 24 playoff contents), Sather may need to look no further than the recent two-year deal signed by Ryan O’Reilly of the Colorado Avalanche.
The 23-year-old center avoided salary arbitration last week by signing a two-year contract that will pay him $5.8 million next season and $6.2 million in 2015-16. His numbers were, in fact, better than Stepan’s last season when he scored 28 goals and added 36 assists in 80 games.
Is Stepan worth that type of money and what will the team’s salary cap situation look like? It that the type of money he will command come next summer when Sather and the Blueshirts’ brass may have their hand forced simply due to the fact that the Rangers don’t have much depth down the middle?
A few factors could be in play here. First, the 24-year-old Stepan must again prove his worth to the defending Eastern Conference champions. His durability and toughness (see 82 games played, only one game missed in the playoffs after suffering a broken jaw against Montreal) is unquestioned, as is his playmaking ability.
There’s no doubt that the coaching staff would like to see at least 20 goals this season, but that is likely to come being that he is playing for a new contract.
The second factor to consider is what the Rangers have in the pipeline at the center position (short answer…not much). That may indeed force Sather into shelling out a few more dollars than he’d like to retain Stepan’s services.
The bottom line is this. Stepan has been a good soldier and a solid contributor who has gotten better every year. There’s no reason to think that is going to change. If Sather lets Stepan’s case be settled in arbitration, chances are they will lose him the following season.
Getting Stepan under contract, possibly even locking him up long-term, should be a priority. Will he command O’Reilly money? Probably. Does he deserve it? That’s in the eye of the beholder and a question that is likely to be answered on the ice this season.