It's remarkable, really, to see just how much the media and fans get annoyed when young, cheap talent stays young but no longer remains cheap. We've been down this road before multiple times and yet no one ever seems to learn and we end up going through the same song and dance over and over again.
The Derek Stepan negotiations haven't even really started yet, and still the panic is at an all time high. Why? Well, the Buffalo Sabres signed newly acquired Ryan O'Reilly to a massive deal worth a $7.5-million cap hit that really doesn't have anything to do with Stepan but don't tell that to the masses using it to generate clicks and/or hot takes. At the very least its allowed the hockey world to pretend the market is all of a sudden expensive for an offensive 25-year-old center and ignore the fact its always been like that.
Stepan filed for arbitration Sunday, a move which is well within his rights as a restricted free agent and a leverage tactic that he frankly should be using. (By the way, O'Reilly's contract is inadmissible to Stepan's arbitration negotiations if they even get there.) No one complained when Glen Sather played hardball with Stepan and forced a bridge deal down his throat two summer ago -- and incidentally, not locking down Stepan long term then is what caused the current situation to be so dire in terms of the cap.
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If you're someone who believes Stepan isn't worth the money he's going to get I want to paint a different picture for you.
According to the amazing Hockey Reference, Stepan is tied for 30th in points per game for players 25 or under who have played in at least 250 games since the lockout. Stepan's PPG metric over that time is 0.70. Narrow the scope a little and Stepan jumps up the ranks. Under the same criteria but going from 2010 (Stepan's rookie year) forward, Stepan is 15th in the NHL in points per game for players 25 or under who have played in at least 250 games.
The names in front of Stepan are some of the elite players in the NHL. Tyler Seguin, as an example, is scoring at a 0.80 PPG pace over the same span as Stepan.
Just as a reference, a 0.10 deviation is worth about 8.2 points over a full 82 games. To use Seguin as an example -- since apparently he'd be worth that money even though Stepan isn't -- he's 9th on that list (a full 6 spots above Stepan) but he only has 30 more points (in 8 less games).
The names below Stepan (so, players sporting a worse PPG metric)? Gabriel Landeskog, Evander Kane, James van Reimsdyke, O'Reilly, Jeff Skinner and Ryan Johansen are the forwards worth highlighting.
Still don't think Stepan is worth his money?
There's another aspect about Stepan that everyone seems to be forgetting, too. He's putting up these offensive numbers while playing a defensive role for the Rangers. Last year was the first year we saw a drop in Stepan's possession metrics, although further research seemed to indicate Martin St. Louis' decline was the biggest culprit of that.
He's a positive possession player who is capable of doing it no matter what defensive situation he's burdened with or who is on his line. In fact, the only thing Stepan doesn't do particularly well is win faceoffs, but those aren't really all that important anyway.
His defensive abilities cannot be ignored; he's capable of putting up high-octane offensive numbers to go along with very difficult defensive assignments. Those players are rare, and when you have one of those players entering the prime of his career you take care of them.
Stepan is player in a high enough class that you move other players to make sure he fits.
There is one other aspect that needs to be addressed and it's an important one. Cap inflation is a real thing that needs to be taken into consideration here. I've seen a lot of people argue they don't want to pay Stepan "top-10 money" because he's not a "top-10" player. I'm putting quotations around "top-10" because that term is being thrown around the same way "number one center" is when talking about Stepan. Stepan is a number one center because he's the number one center on the Rangers. That's how these things work. The phrase is subjective, though, and it doesn't really make sense on its own.
The point I'm trying to make here is there was a time (five years ago or so) when $7-million was "top-10" money. And even though top players are making that money now, when they signed their contracts they were bigger hits. A $7-million deal today is worth about 10% of the cap when it would have been a much higher percentage years ago when the salary cap was lower. Those things make a difference when you look at the big picture. And when you're talking about "top-10" money today, look at the deals Patrick Kane and Johnathan Toews got recently.
There seems to be a divide where fans are willing to pay Stepan $6-million but won't go a penny over $6.5-million because of how close the Rangers are to the cap ceiling. But these are the same people who defended the Dan Girardi contract, don't think Tanner Glass' $1.45-million cap hit is a problem and don't want the Rangers to trade Kevin Klein. Essentially they are perfectly happy tying up $9.85-million in three players who can easily be replaced but want to get rid of a player who is one of the pillars in the foundation of what makes this team successful.
If Jeff Gorton has to get uncomfortable to make Stepan work, then so be it. If he needs to take care of some of Sather's mistakes to do it, then it is what it is.
Just make sure it is taken care of, because the Rangers need Stepan a lot more than he needs them.