ARLINGTON, Va. - Wearing a white Team USA jersey, Derek Stepan looked and spoke nothing like a 23-year-old deeply concerned about his next contract.
With Rangers training camp opening in 16 days, the restricted free agent center who scored 44 points in 48 games last season was relaxed, upbeat and anticipating both a successful start to the NHL season and a spot on the Olympic squad in Sochi next February.
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"Every year you want to perform better, and you've got to have that little extra spark this year with the opportunity that's in front of me," said Stepan, who gave no indication that he intended to hold out and not attend training camp, the first under new coach Alain Vigneault.
"I don't expect either side expects me not to be [at camp]," Stepan said in his first public comments on the negotiations this summer during the first day of the U.S. National Team's orientation camp. "Both sides are working at finding the right number and a fair deal . . . I don't think anybody wants it to stretch out longer than it should."
Based on comparable signings around the NHL, Stepan, coming off a three-year entry- level pact worth $875,000 per year, deserves a long-term deal of more than $4 million a season. But the Rangers, squeezed by the salary cap in part because they decided not to buy out the remaining seven years of Brad Richards' contract this summer (which carries a $6.67- million annual cap charge), have offered Stepan a two-year "bridge contract" at an undisclosed amount. That pact could be extended before next season, when many NHL executives have predicted the cap will rise significantly.
The Rangers are about $2.1 million under the current $64.3-million salary cap. That includes eight defensemen and 14 forwards under contract, and three of them presumably will be reassigned, waived or traded to ease the squeeze.
Stepan, who captained the U.S. World Junior team that won gold in 2010, said the larger international ice surface puts a premium on top skaters and patient playmakers.
Right now, he is exercising that patience in the contract talks. Asked if he prefers that a deal with the Rangers get done today, Stepan said: "In a perfect world, yes, but these things take time. It's something that both sides have to agree on. It's just part of the business."
If Stepan agrees to a short-term deal and produces, the Hastings, Minn., native should be rewarded. "He'll be there [at camp]," predicted Rangers teammate and University of Wisconsin pal Ryan McDonagh, who also was invited to the camp. "It's a unique situation for him, but ultimately he'll be a Ranger."
Notes & quotes: Ryan Callahan, who is part of the five-man player leadership group at the U.S. camp, reported no setbacks in the rehab of his surgically repaired shoulder but said he could miss several games or more at the beginning of the regular season. Callahan said that four years ago, "I put a little more pressure on myself to make Team USA. This time I'm just going to have to realize that if I play well in October, November and December, I'll make the team, so I'll be focusing on the Rangers."
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