Hockey is a Business, So the Islanders Should Offer Sheet Derek Stepan

Kevin Schultz, Islanders Point Blank:

What’s a good rivalry without needling your foe once in a while?

While the Islanders have started training camp and announced John Tavares captain, things have been relatively easy going and uneventful on Long Island. That is to say, there really are no pressing concerns about the team other than; how will it play this season and who will be on it? That’s really quite refreshing.

With other clubs, things haven’t been quite so tranquil. In Toronto, they have yet to re-sign soon-to-be 23-year old center Nazem Kadri. If you recall, Kadri had a hat trick at the Coliseum on February 28 en route to a 18 goal and 44 point season in only 48 games. He’s looking to get paid and things, as they often do in Toronto, have gotten wacky. The Leafs don’t have the cap room to sign him for big money and with only one excellent season under his belt, there’s the argument that he hasn’t proven himself to be more than a one-year wonder. (Note: Overnight, Kadri signed a two-year deal for $2.9 per)

John Tortorella, Ales KotalikAcross the metro area in Manhattan, a similar situation is playing out with the Rangers and center Derek Stepan, albeit in much quieter fashion (most NHL teams do business much more quietly than the Maple Leafs). Stepan turned 23 in June and is, like Kadri, a restricted free agent looking to get paid. However, Stepan has quite a leg to stand on.

In three seasons in the NHL, Stepan has established himself as a budding young star with 96 points in his first 164 games. In this lockout shortened season he contributed nearly a point per game (44 in 48) for a mediocre Rangers offense.

The Rangers this off-season, pushed up against the cap, did not buyout Brad Richards, which had been expected. That leaves them with only $2 million of cap space, according to Cap Geek. To make matters worse, they’re going to have to clear room next year if they want to re-sign Henrik Lundqvist, who will be a UFA after the 2013-14 campaign. Lundqvist, if the Rangers want to keep him, will basically be backing up a Brinks truck to 2 Penn Plaza.

Now Stepan — who was too young to go to arbitration — wants his money and thanks to their cap troubles the Rangers are having problems signing him. Larry Brooks reports that Stepan is looking for five of six years at $5 million per and the Rangers are offering two-years for $3 million or slightly less (Brooks also says the Rangers have $3 million in space, not 2). If that’s the case, the two sides are hardly close.

This would be a perfect opportunity for the Islanders to sneak in and grab a big-time player from their biggest rival.

The Islanders have cap space for days and with a deal in the $3-$5 million range, Stepan wouldn’t be demolishing the Islanders carefully constructed pay scale. At the top of that scale is John Tavares at $5.5 million, the only player on the team that Stepan did not outscore last year, so bringing in Stepan at between $4-5 million makes fiscal sense.

For further comparison, Stepan has 140 points in the last three seasons, compared to 166 for Matt Moulson over the same time frame. Moulson is making $3.13 million in the final year of his contract, and should easily see a raise by the time he signs his next contract.

Again, Stepan at $4-5 million doesn’t blow up the pay scale. Money talks, as the saying goes, and that’s about what it would take for the Islanders to make a legitimate offer sheet to Stepan. If Stepan signs for between $3.3 and $5.05 million per with the Islanders, it costs them next year’s first and third rounder. Would you trade those two picks, not likely to be in the top 10, for Derek Stepan? It almost sounds too good to be true.

In a way, it sort of is. The risk a GM runs when he sends out an offer sheet is doing something against the grain (which the Islanders are not unfamiliar with) and running the risk of pissing off the opposing team. That’s the general reason why offer sheets are few and far between in the NHL; they’re not “gentlemanly.”

If you recall, when Kevin Lowe then-GM of the Oilers offer sheeted Anaheim’s Dustin Penner, GM Brian Burke responded with challenging Lowe to a barn fight.

But what do manners have to do with it when it is two rivals like the Islanders and the Rangers?

The other problem with the offer sheet is that the Islanders would risk getting in a fight with the Rangers and their deep pockets. So, when the cap goes up in a couple years and the Rangers find themselves with a bunch of cap space, they could conceivably offer sheet some of the Islanders RFAs — cough, Ryan Strome, cough — and throw absurd signing bonuses at them like the Flyers attempted to do with Shea Weber.

The Islanders can’t compete with the Rangers when it comes to dollars getting thrown around, but by that point, maybe enough of their players will be signed up. Also by that point, the Islanders may be looking at increased revenues in the Barclays Center in a few years.

The core of Okposo, Tavares, Bailey, Hamonic, Grabner and Nielsen are all already signed to long term deals and past the point of restricted free agency. So most of the team’s important players wouldn’t be in danger of falling into Stepan’s situation. Add Stepan to that group of forwards and boom, you have an amazing one-two punch down the middle with Tavares and Stepan not to mention the rest of the offense.

Well, we’re getting into hypotheticals that may not come true. The point is that the Islanders are already juxtaposed to the Rangers off the ice as well as on, by moving to the Barclays Center and, well, existing. They are in direct competition with the Rangers (if they weren’t already) and as everyone always likes to say hockey is a business.

The Islanders should take advantage of the business in Manhattan that has poorly planned its cap space and is vulnerable. Exploit those vulnerabilities and grab Derek Stepan. At the very least, the Rangers match and you screw up the Rangers cap space by making them cut players off of the roster (a divisional opponent cutting good players is still a good thing, by the way). Rangers fans know the possibilities and have been fretting about it on blogs recently.

The Rangers have made their bed, now the Islanders should make them lie in it.