Even though there was a collective cringe Monday night when Rangers general manager Glen Sather took to the team-owned airwaves and criticized unsigned restricted free agent Derek Stepan -- what many interpreted as a clear sign that negotiations would become increasingly nasty and drawn out -- the 23-year-old agreed to terms just a few days later on a modest two-year deal.
That deal, which a source confirmed to ESPNNewYork.com is worth a total of $6.15 million over two years, is a steal considering Stepan’s worth to the team.
Although unfortunate, Sather's comments Monday night (he instructed Stepan to be "wiser" about the decision and even dropped the word "fool" into the conversation), were a reflection of the team's leverage in the protracted situation.
For one, Stepan had no arbitration rights. Furthermore, it wasn't like the Rangers had oodles of cash to drop on the 23-year-old pivot, especially considering the somewhat surprising decision by the team NOT to buy out Brad Richards' contract this summer. The team also knew that the possibility of sitting out any portion of the season had to be an unappealing one to Stepan, even more so with his Olympic candidacy at stake.
So the Rangers held firm on sticking around the $3 million average annual value (Stepan's comes in just north of that at $3.075 million per year) and got their probable first-line center under contract with a very team-friendly deal -- one that is very likely to be considered under value market for the dynamic youngster.
Though Stepan missed valuable time in training camp with the Rangers, who are learning a new system under coach Alain Vigneault, he will be available for the team's season opener Oct. 3 against the Phoenix Coyotes. Not having him in the lineup could have been a disaster for the Rangers with captain Ryan Callahan and fellow top-six forward Carl Hagelin unlikely to play (both players are coming off shoulder surgery this summer and are expected to miss at least the first few weeks).
Because of those absences in the lineup, and the uncertainty about Richards' ability to bounce back after an atrocious 2013 season, Stepan's presence is of the utmost importance to the Rangers' success this season.
The former University of Wisconsin standout led the team in scoring with 18 goals and 44 points in 48 games last season, and the Rangers will count on him to be a consistent playmaker and contributor again this season.
Stepan probably will not see any preseason action -- he is expected to fly to New York on Thursday night to rejoin the team when they return from the West Coast -- so he may be a little behind, but as the Rangers can surely attest, a rusty Stepan is far better than no Stepan at all.