The Rangers are days away from the beginning of training camp and the team's incumbent 1st line center and restricted free agent, Derek Stepan, remains unsigned. Though no legitimate rumors of an offer sheet for Stepan have surfaced, the potential for one has been speculated and the cause of some worry. Stepan is one of the quick rising young centers in hockey so, at face value, he is a commodity that any team would love to have. But actually acquiring him is a task with numerous logistics and potential obstacles. How many teams are actually in a position to propose an offer sheet to Derek Stepan? Let's take a look.
For the purposes of keeping the possibilities open let us use an annual cap hit of $5.25 Million – which the Rangers would probably match regardless, but for the sake of discussion we'll pretend otherwise – for any offer sheet proposed to Stepan. Under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, a team proposing such a contract is required to be in possession of its own first, second, and third round picks for the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. These picks, of course, would go to the Rangers as compensation for any offer the Rangers did not match. This immediately eliminates the Senators, Devils, Oilers, Kings, Wild, Penguins, and Jets. These teams could re-acquire any missing picks much like the Maple Leafs did when they wanted Phil Kessel, but that is not an easy task in itself. As of now they can't make an offer to Stepan.
Again, using that conservative $5.25 Million AAV, how many of the remaining 22 teams could realistically fit Derek Stepan and still stay in compliance with the salary cap?
It would be a virtual impossibility for the following teams to fit Stepan:
Blackhawks, Bruins, Blue Jackets, Stars, Red Wings, Flyers, Sharks, Blues, Lightning, Maple Leafs, Canucks, and Capitals.
While the following teams would need to make a notable move or two to fit Stepan:
Ducks, Hurricanes, Canadiens, Predators, and Coyotes.
(You can use Cap Geek to check these figures yourself. Keep in mind that some teams still have their own players to re-sign.)
Even when using a conservative salary, we're left with five teams with the draft picks and salary cap space necessary to make a realistic play for Stepan. Let's look at those five teams and see what sense an offer sheet would actually make.
They did send an offer sheet to Ryan O'Reilly, a similar player, last season. However, that was while GM Jay Feaster was still living under the delusion that the Flames were a playoff team. This offseason he finally admitted the team needed a rebuild. Though Stepan is a young, talented player, building through the draft seems like a much more realistic path for a rebuilding process. It would be contradicting and irrational of the Flames to give up what is almost surely going to be a top-five pick and perhaps reasonably likely to be in the top three.
With some roster moves and a coaching change the Avalanche are sure to be better than last season. Where exactly would Stepan fit in, though? With Matt Duchene, Ryan O'Reilly, and Paul Stastny, the Avalanche were already rich with centers prior to drafting center Nate MacKinnon with the top pick of this past draft. O'Reilly is moving to the wing to accomodate the surplus. The Avalanche are, by a wide margin, the last team in need of Stepan.
The Panthers are in a similar position to the Flames. They were the worst team in the NHL last season and their roster is more or less the same as it was. They just drafted center Alexander Barkov and young phenom Jonathan Huberdeau is also capable of playing the position. Even if the Panthers were to risk losing the 1st overall pick of the 2014 draft, it probably would not be for a center.
The Sabres missed out on the playoffs last season and they're unlikely to be a legitimate contender this season. They have their own young center, Cody Hodgson, to worry about signing before they could even begin to think about Derek Stepan. Tomas Vanek, their best forward, is a free agent at the end of the season and Ryan Miller is as well. At best they are a bubble team with a lot of question marks going forward, and at worst they are right there with the Flames and Panthers in looking at a full-blown rebuild.
New York Islanders:
Was last season a fluke or an actual step towards building a winner in Long Island? We'll have to see. But the Islanders are certainly in a better position than Flames, Panthers, and Sabres. Cap space and actual budget room are two different things with Charles Wang in charge, and the Islanders have been incredibly stingy with their draft picks. The Islanders have John Tavares and Frans Nielsen locked in as centers with Josh Bailey also capable of the position, and center prospects Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson, and Anders Lee all have upside and will be getting looks soon. Conceivably, the move could work if Stepan would move to wing. But it generally wouldn't make much sense for the Islanders to make a dramatic move to pay Stepan more than they do Tavares. Their goaltending situation going forward is highly questionable and they could use some help on defense. Stepan addresses no pressing need.
It is easy to see why Glen Sather is playing hardball with Derek Stepan. Only five teams are in a position to make a move for him. Stepan would probably have to move to a rebuilding team in order to get the contract he wanted, but even that is under the faulty pretense that any of these teams would give up their draft picks and offer him an expensive, lengthy contract. The Islanders are the only team for which an offer sheet could logistically make any modicum of sense, but even they are unlikely. And of course, the Rangers can (and likely would) match any reasonable offer. No GM wants to spend significant amounts of time, energy, and resources negotiating with an agent and doing all sorts of paper work just for the Rangers to match and keep Stepan.
Ultimately, there is little threat of an offer sheet. If Stepan is not interested in a bridge-deal then the only card he has left to play is to sit out. PK Subban attempted that last season and lasted all of six games before conceding and accepting a two-year deal. The last player to play a game of Chicken with Sather, Brandon Dubinsky, held out of training camp for a week before giving in and accepting a two-year deal. Stepan's agent has every reason to draw negotiations out and milk every penny out of the Rangers, but the endgame will almost surely be Sather getting his way.
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