The challenge of RFA negotiations

Derek Stepan has quickly become a force for the Rangers, but can they afford a long-term deal? Patrick McDermott/NHLI/Getty Images

A couple years ago, a GM was asked about the contract status of one of his restricted free agents in early summer. You know how it goes, he answered, these things don't get done until training camp is close.

A deadline, in this case, is a powerful thing. And we saw that power firsthand last week as deals for players like Nazem Kadri, Cody Hodgson, Jared Cowen and Alex Pietrangelo all got completed, which prevented having those players miss significant time at the start of training camp.

Kadri and the Maple Leafs went with a two-year bridge contract. Hodgson got a six-year deal, Cowen a four-year deal and Pietrangelo the biggest one -- a seven-year pact worth $45.5 million.

With apologies to Cody Franson, that leaves Rangers center Derek Stepan as the most prominent restricted free agent without a deal. On Sunday, the New York Post reported that Stepan and the Rangers were about $1 million apart on a two-year bridge deal. But one could make the argument that he's done more to earn a long-term deal than some of the other young players signed to extensions this summer.

In Stepan's case, he's been building off a successful rookie season (2010-11) in which he scored 21 goals. His point total grew from 45 to 51 the following season, then last season he had his best of the three, with 44 points in 48 games (which projects to about 75 in a full, 82-game slate).

USA Hockey thinks very highly of him: Stepan has been identified as a guy who could get a shot at a top-six forward spot in the Olympics. At the Olympic orientation camp this summer, Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said Stepan's growth should continue.

"I expect him to take even more strides. He has the ability to do that," Callahan said. "To have a guy that was kind of homegrown and has grown up with the organization and has that much success means a lot for the organization, and means a lot for our success as a team."

But how much is it worth?

One of the toughest decisions a general manager has to make with his young players is when to award the long-term contract. Commit too much money and term to the wrong young player and it can create future salary cap-problems along with creating high expectations from other young players coming up through the organization. It sets a precedent.

Even when you commit money to the right young players, it can speed up the window in which you have to be successful. The best teams have success while key players are still on entry-level contracts because it allows them to afford higher-priced veterans to surround the young core. So a team like the Oilers' best chance at winning may be in the short term, before huge paydays are due for guys like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz.

When you're able to control the costs of young players -- similar to what the San Jose Sharks have done -- you can allocate more dollars towards veterans like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle to build successful teams. But it takes cooperation from young players coming through the system, who have to believe they're being treated fairly and that their payday will ultimately come.

Sticking with San Jose, Logan Couture is a good example. He took a bridge contract, and then cashed in this summer with a five-year deal worth $30 million.

The Sharks typically don't give long-term deals to their youngest players, but it's also worth noting that they haven't spent a lot of time drafting in the lottery. If Sidney Crosby or Jonathan Toews was picked by the Sharks, GM Doug Wilson probably wouldn't have been able to stick to his bridge contract strategy so closely.

"He hasn't done [long-term deals]," said one NHL agent about Wilson and the Sharks. "That doesn't mean he'll never do it."

So how do you identify which players get the bridge and which players to commit to long term?

"That's a tough question," said Rangers assistant GM Jeff Gorton, talking in general terms and not about Stepan. "In this day and age, we have a cap team and having the type of players that we have on our team, making the kind of money we have, sometimes it's circumstance more than the player."

And that's what is happening with the Rangers right now. They clearly like Stepan, but they are squeezed financially, which makes the bridge deal the preferred course of action.

"It has nothing to do with the player, especially in this case," Gorton said. "You have a cap that's going down. Then a bridge becomes a more appealing contract to us. We have to get through this year. That's basically the genesis of it. It's that simple."

Another theory that comes from the club side is that the short-term deals keep a player hungry -- the motivation that comes with short-term deals is a healthy thing for young players.

"Giving a 21-year-old player a six-year deal -- I'm not sure it's good for the player or the team," said one GM.

The 2008 draft, in which Stepan was the No. 51 overall pick, could end up being an interesting case study in that theory, because the draft class is maturing to the point where young players are getting their long-term deals.

At the top, you can't question the long-term deals given to Steven Stamkos and Drew Doughty, two players who continue to perform at a high level despite long-term security. Stamkos signed a five-year deal in July of 2011, then followed it up with a 60-goal season. Doughty struggled the season after signing his eight-year deal but has since helped the Kings win a Stanley Cup and is a big reason why they're in position to contend for another in 2013-14. No motivation problems there.

But there are long-term deals that run the risk of looking bad too. Buffalo might want a mulligan on the seven-year, $38.5 million deal it gave No. 12 pick Tyler Myers, who hasn't repeated the success he had early on in his career. The seven-year, $36 million contract Zach Bogosian signed with Winnipeg this summer comes with risk, since he's still developing as a player.

And the Rangers probably would have liked to see more restraint from the Devils and Sabres in their deals for Adam Henrique and Cody Hodgson, both drafted in 2008. Henrique and Hodgson got six-year deals this summer, and both are players Stepan has outperformed.

That's the challenge with comparisons. The Devils and Sabres aren't cap teams, and it wasn't a financial strain to do those deals. But is it really Stepan's problem that the Rangers overpaid for Brad Richards or that Rick Nash has a cap hit of $7.8 million? Right now, that seems to be the case.

"You only have that much money to go around," Gorton said. "It's hard. It's just the reality of the situation. Sometimes guys have to wait. That's just the way it is."