Derek Stepan and CBA inefficiency

September 13, 2013, by

It signs the contract or else it gets the hose again.

Up until pre-season games start up in earnest, the fan focus around Rangerland will continue to be Derek Stepan’s unresolved contract situation.  The boys around here have done a fantastic job covering the specifics, comparables and negotiating leverage surrounding the Blueshirt’s final RFA, but I wanted to examine a slightly different facet: the gaping hole in the CBA that lead to this situation to begin with.

The age in which a player signs his ELC will determine whether or not he is eligible for arbitration rights during his RFA years.  Depending on how long the ELC is, a player could foreseeably have two years (though, usually just one) of RFA eligibility without receiving arbitration rights.  This essentially means a player is allowed to seek “market” value (compared to other team-controlled players with no arbitration rights), but is still somewhat at the whim of the team’s valuation, with very little negotiating leverage.

Just to put some practical numbers on this concept, Stepan signed his ELC at age 20.  Players who sign their first contract between ages 18-20 require 4 years of service before receiving arbitration rights as a Group II RFA.  The amount of required service time decreases as the players signing age increases.  Since Step signed a 3-year ELC, he will have one season of RFA eligibility without being able to avail himself of arbitration rights.  Hence the hardball strategy Sather usually employs with his “bridge” deals.

My question is, why leave a gap between a player’s cost-controlled years and his arbitration eligible, market value years?  This may have been contemplated originally as an opportunity for players to seek offer sheets to enhance their leverage prior to arbitration rights kicking in.  However, with offer sheets being seen as a taboo amongst GMing colleagues, you’d think it would have been re-examined in the most recent CBA.  Because, as it stands right now, a non-arbitration eligible RFA has only one mechanism to leverage the negotiations: hold out.

As (most) everyone knows, this is where we currently are with Stepan.  We’ve been here before with Brandon Dubinsky and Michael Del Zotto.  Nobody wins.  The relationship between the player and the organization is inevitably strained, and the player ultimately succumbs to the reality of the situation and unhappily accepts a bridge deal.  It’s understandable from the organization’s side why they would want to artificially depress the value of these intermediate level contracts, but the system itself makes no sense.

In Major League Baseball, for example, players have three years of pre-arbitration salary (similar to the ELC, except usually done year-to-year), followed by three seasons (sometimes four) of arbitration eligibility before hitting true free agency.  This allows for a substantial negotiating window in the off-season between the club and the player before an arbitration hearing will determine terms if the team and player cannot agree.  This keeps players on the field and the contract nonsense to a minimum.

This uncomfortable RFA landscape has manifested itself regularly since Lockout II, and has caused problems for almost every team.  It makes no sense to allow a player to seek market value for his services yet extend him no leverage.  If the league doesn’t want the extra year of arbitration eligibility, then make younger players sign longer ELC’s until they have arbitration rights, or something along those lines.  This half in, half out approach does nothing but hurt player’s relationships with their teams and keep kids out of training camp when their club takes a hard line.

While nothing will be done about it during this CBA, this is an issue the league should seriously consider revising for the next agreement.  I’m also confident that Stepan’s camp will cave and he will sign a 2-year deal in the coming days, but I can’t help but feel like it didn’t have to be this way.

Categories : Business of Hockey


  1. Walt says:

    The system is what it is, and until they change it, guys like Step are in a weak bargining position at this stage of their careers!

    Slats is going to sign the kid, Step will play this season, and when the bridge agreement expires, he will get the big pay day he earned.

    I have a problem with the press putting out contract terms of players, and setting up sceens like we have in play with Step, and the Rangers. Step is worth $3-4.5 million a year on the open market today.

    Teams like the Leafs are stupid to pay what they did for Kadri, so be it. That doesn’t mean that every player with similar stats should be paid the same amount. On the Leafs, Kadri may be worth his contract terms, Step may not with the Rangers. We are deeper, and are cash strapped, so Step won’t get his value this time around. When the bridge argreement has expired, then we will see what the team deems to be his true value.

    Every team has signed contracts like the Gomez deal, only to be made fools of. Philly signed Bryz, what a deal, and what a dud. Tampa signed Vinny to a hugh contract, only to see his production go way down. Bottom line, the system is what it is, and we have to live with it until the next lock out, heaven forbid!!!!!

  2. Justin says:

    I agree with you Walt, but my problem is that it makes no sense. Either give the player leverage, or don’t. This weird middle ground causes nothing but problems.

  3. PopsTwitTar says:

    You correctly note that teams like this structure – it keeps the value down on young players. That’s the entire purpose of the entry level system in the first place, and this supports that.

    “This uncomfortable RFA landscape has manifested itself regularly since Lockout II, and has caused problems for almost every team…The relationship between the player and the organization is inevitably strained, and the player ultimately succumbs to the reality of the situation and unhappily accepts a bridge deal. ”

    I dont know how true this statement is. Someone with more time than me would be able to do a list of those players caught in this position over the years since the 2005 CBA. Id be interested to see how often those players stayed with their original team. Is the relationship between the NYR and Del Zotto “strained?” Was is strained between NYR and Dubinsky? [IOW, if he hadnt been traded, do you think he’d be chomping at the bit to get out of NY?]

    Yes, its a weird system, and puts the players in a tight spot early in their careers. But Im not convinced there’s any real lasting damage caused.

    • Justin says:

      You make a good point Pops. I didn’t mean to infer that this effect leads to untimely splits between club and player, but simply that it adds an artificial strain on the relationship.

      I’ll explain it this way: If you look at some recent examples, Stepan, PK Subban, Del Zotto, Alex Pietrangelo; these are all players the club sincerely wanted to retain. However, they were using their rights under the CBA to minimize the cap hit and risk. It might not lead to a player being upset enough that they leave, but clearly from listening to comments these players make, they feel undervalued by the club due to the lack of arb rights.

      All I’m saying is you ostensibly have a relationship that both sides value, so why interject a stressor onto that relationship, when no one would have any hard feelings if the player had one more year of ELC wage, or the team was forced by arb to provide a closer to market value offer. Just seems senseless when the end result is usually a team-controlled player losing a chunk of training camp.

      • PopsTwitTar says:

        Good clarification. But I think my point still stands – because the value of the leverage held by the Club is bigger than the “damage” caused. Of the 4 players you listed, Id be no one of them ends up on a different when their next contract comes up.

  4. Mikeyyy says:

    My issue with the situation is the players defer to their agent. As step did. He is the person that ultimately makes the decision to sign. The Rangers typically offer decent deals.

    If he really wanted to be a ranger he would be signed. He is waiting for an offer sheet. Br back and the emergence of brassard does not bode well for him.

    Lindberg could spell the end of stepan.

    • Evan M says:

      I wholeheartedly disagree. Their agents get paid for a reason. Because he’s looking to get what he thinks he’s owed means he doesn’t want to be a Ranger? Nonsense. The FO is looking for the best deal for them, and Step is doing the same. I can’t blame him, and he’ll suit up with the rest of them opening night, I’m sure.

      Brassard has yet to emerge. Lindberg hasn’t played a minute of NHL ice time. BR back means nothing for Stepan’s longevity in NY.

      • Mikeyyy says:

        Correct. Once you make more than 2 million a year the rest is gravy. He’s being immature. And he obviously doesnt want to be a ranger he wants the biggest Payday he can get.

        Imagine that and showing he isn’t a leader. Leaders don’t hold out. Leaders play. Leaders come to the ice even when the contract isn’t complete.

        And leaders take the onus upon themselves when situations like this arise. they don’t let their mommy er agent do the talking.

        Wake up step your only hurting yourself. Each day you are not on the ice proving yourself, your regressing and losing faith from the fanbase.

        and we really don’t need him.

        Lindberg/any 4th line center.

        We are good to go. Step is now added cushion and expendable in my eyes. Wonder if the Canucks would consider a trade.

        As Av said. The only thing step is doing is giving other players am opportunity to take his spot.

        • Evan M says:

          You’re right… look at that center depth. We don’t need Step. No question marks down the middle… Stepan’s past his prime anyway. No 21 year old gets better with more experience. Let him walk. He obviously doesn’t like NY. The frequent trade requests. The offer sheet he’s signed… Get real

          • Walt says:

            Agree 10000000% with yor stand!! Mikeyyy reminds me of the days when Phil Esposito was our GM, he wanted to trade Leeche, and the rest is history. Step will sign, and will make a great 1st line center for this team.

          • joe says:


        • Mark says:

          “The rest is gravy’? In what country? This guy has a shelf life that is not too long. While he should be playing for something in the 3MM neighborhood this year, the 1MM difference is not gravy. He will need this money down the road in his life since he will not be playing in his 40’s 50’s and 60’s. He has no leverage and he should not be paid as elite this year, but he should get a substantial raise and not be traded.

    • Spozo says:

      If you were in a position at your current job to say to your boss “I’m not coming in tomorrow until you give me 4 times what I was paid last year” and then ultimately get about that kind of money, would you do it?

    • Walt says:

      For your information, the agents are there so as to not go face to face with the team management, get the best deal done, and keep the hard feelings down to a minimum!! Thats called negotiation!!


      BR is gone at the end of this season, Step has no worries there!!!!

  5. Melissa says:

    Here’s something I’ve been thinking of in regards to changing this – make it an either this or this situation. They want to keep the age thing, fine. But if a player plays a certain number of games, he gets to jump into an arbitration category. It’s absolutely ridiculous that due to age, Hagelin and McDonagh had arbitration rights when Stepan played 69 games less than the two of them combined. I’m not saying make the number of game 100 but I think if a player has played over 200 games, he should get more rights than a guy who played 60 but signed his ELC a year later.

  6. Frank Cerbone says:

    Can Rangers holdout and refuse to pay Richards (sic)?

    Can’t the Rangers say that the current CBA is unfair for players who can’t perform under their
    existing contracts (sic) ?