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Derek Stepan agrees to contract with Rangers

Derek Stepan celebrates his third-period goal during a

Derek Stepan celebrates his third-period goal during a game against the Washington Capitals. (Feb. 17, 2013) Credit: Jim McIsaac

VANCOUVER -- The biggest win of the preseason for the Rangers wasn't a game. It was when Derek Stepan agreed to a two-year, $6.15-million contract Thursday, ending a long standoff that kept the team's No. 1 center away from training camp.

Stepan, 23, led the Rangers in scoring during the lockout-shortened season with 18 goals and 26 assists in 48 games and is a prime candidate to play for the U.S. team in the winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

"It's hard to sit here and tell you it [the Olympics] didn't have any weight or effect on my decision," Stepan said during a conference call. Team USA coaches will be evaluating players closely the first three months of the season. "First and foremost was getting myself in a New York jersey. We wanted to make sure we got ourselves a deal that's fair and was fair for New York as well. The urgency came from the fact that I was ready to play and I think New York was ready to have this be done with."

Stepan was flying to New York, where he will undergo a physical and fitness testing, and be ready to practice with the Blueshirts on Sunday. "I'm not far off" in conditioning, said Stepan, who has been practicing with the team at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. "There's going to be times when I need to catch up a little bit."

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said he would "welcome him back with open arms," and players were pleased that Stepan would rejoin the club. "He's an elite center and a big piece to the puzzle, so it's good to have him back," said Rick Nash, who played on a line with Stepan for part of last season.

Drafted by the Rangers in the second round in 2008, Stepan is coming off an entry-level contract worth $875,000 a year and had initially sought a longer-term deal. But Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather insisted on a two-year contract and prevailed.

"It's a tough year, the [salary] cap went down quite a bit," Stepan said. "At the same time, both sides handled it as best we could. There's no bitterness. At a young age in my career, I got to see the business side of it. There's no question in my mind I didn't want it [the negotiations] to go that long. I don't think either side expected it to go that long."

With Stepan, who has scored 56 goals and posted 140 points in 212 games with the Rangers and is a prime candidate for the U.S. Olympic team in the fold, the Rangers must now maneuver to get under the $64.3 million salary cap by Monday. The NHL season begins Tuesday.

With only about $2 million available under the cap, they will waive, trade or reassign players, presumably after last night's game against the Canucks or tonight's game against the Kings in Las Vegas.

"I've been in constant communication with [Stepan] during the whole thing," said defenseman Ryan McDonagh, Stepan's friend since college. "He was always asking about the guys and told me this morning it was coming to an end. He was just doing what he had to do."

Rangers blanked by Canucks: In Vigneault's first game back here after being hired by the Rangers -- and John Tortorella's first against his former troops -- the Canucks blew by the Blueshirts, 5-0. Henrik Sedin scored twice and Henrik Lundqvist did not look sharp, allowing five goals on 17 shots through 40 minutes before being replaced by Martin Biron at the start of the third period. Roberto Luongo made 40 saves for the Canucks.

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