Arthur Staple Arthur Staple

Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school sports, hockey and football.

Chris Kreider is pretty clear about his plans for next season.

"I don't feel like I'm ready for the NHL," the Rangers' 2009 first-round draft pick told Newsday by phone from Kosice, Slovakia, where he's playing for the U.S. team in the World Championships. "Another year [at Boston College] can't hurt."

Kreider, 20, is the Rangers' top prospect right now. From Glen Sather on down, the Rangers have become an organization that wants to get its top prospects into its system as soon as possible, and the team views Kreider the same way it viewed Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan last summer -- top-level college players who would be better served in the pros than staying in the collegiate game.

Of course, McDonagh and Stepan exceeded everyone's expectations by playing key roles with the Rangers, rather than learning the game in the AHL. The Rangers still want to sign Kreider, despite his desire to return to BC for his junior year. During a normal offseason, the 20-year-old might be swayed to the NHL because of money and the promise of an accelerated path to the big club.

But this is not a normal year when it comes to signing prospects and some key free agents.

Lost in the turmoil surrounding the NFL's current lockout and the pending NBA labor war is that the NHL's collective-bargaining agreement expires after the 2011-12 season, which means a key component of the salary cap, the performance bonus cushion, isn't in effect for this season.

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The bonus cushion allows teams to exceed the salary cap with bonus money by up to 7.5 percent; if players earn their bonus money and the team exceeds the cap, that amount is then taken off the following season's cap number.

While teams operated under a $59.4-million cap in 2010-11, the Blackhawks, who had stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane meet high-paying bonus numbers, were working with a roughly $54-million cap and had to trade key players such as Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien last summer to stay under their lower cap number.

With no CBA in place for 2012-13, there is no bonus cushion. Various sources have told Newsday that next season's salary cap will come in between $62-$63 million. Entry-level deals, like the one Kreider would sign, are fixed at three years and for varying amounts, depending on the draft round, but bonuses are not fixed. John Tavares, for instance, has $2.875 million in performance bonuses for each year of his contract.

Teams such as the Islanders and Oilers, picking at the top of this year's draft, have loads of salary-cap space and won't have to worry about the bonus cushion being gone.

The Rangers, who currently have 14 players signed for $42.6 million for next season, might have to worry.

"I'd say this is a problem for the top eight payroll teams in the league," said Allan Walsh, a player agent who represents No. 3-rated draft prospect Jonathan Huberdeau. Walsh's firm, Octagon, represents the top three prospects in next month's draft. "What you may see is teams choosing to sign a young player to an entry-level deal rather than add or keep a veteran. The lack of the bonus cushion hurts the older free agents because the league's getting younger."

That could hurt a player such as Ruslan Fedotenko, another of Walsh's clients. Fedotenko had a solid year for the Rangers on an affordable one-year, $1-million contract. If the Rangers sign Kreider and he makes the team, that could take away a spot for Fedotenko or someone like him without the bonus cushion. Big-ticket free agents don't have bonus clauses in their contracts, but some role players, such as Vinny Prospal, do.

Kreider thinks what's best for him is to stay put. "The view I take is, if I'm there, I need to be ready and feel confident in my game," he said. "Whether it's trying to make the team out of camp or being the next guy called up from the minors, I have to be ready or they'll just go with someone else. I don't feel I'm there yet."

Without the bonus cushion, the Rangers may have to agree.