Derek Stepan skates with the puck in the second period...

Derek Stepan skates with the puck in the second period of Game 7 of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Washington Capitals. (May 13, 2013) Credit: AP

As a group of Rangers first gathered for voluntary workouts at the team's practice complex in Westchester County, and later, when more than 50 players reported for a week of training camp, Derek Stepan's locker was empty.

The days rolled on and the space was as visible as the hole in the lineup as the Rangers lost five of six preseason games without their No. 1 center, who was locked in a contract stalemate with the front office.

Stepan remained far away in body, if not in mind, skating on his own and with his former college team at the University of Wisconsin and at home in Hastings, Minn.

"I can tell you it felt a whole lot longer," said the 23-year-old playmaker who is crucial to the fortunes of the Rangers this season and beyond. "It was not a fun time."

Finally back in his stall between Carl Hagelin and Brad Richards after practicing with his teammates and new coaching staff, Stepan wore a blue cap and a smile of relief Tuesday as his crash course in Alain Vigneault's system continued, on the ice and in the classroom.

Stepan, who said he's not far off in his conditioning, is "watching a lot of video, and [the coaches] explaining things on the ice," as he works with linemates Rick Nash and center-turned-left wing Richards and on the power play.

The shift of Richards is one noticeable change that Stepan's presence already has prompted. "With Derek not playing any games, that set us back a little," Vigneault said, in terms of shaping lines. "With Derek arriving, and Brass [Derick Brassard] and Brad, we have three centermen, and at this point all three deserve to be in the top six. Of the three, Derek's our only righthanded shot."

So what has Stepan, who led the team with 44 points in 48 games in the lockout-shortened season, learned since Friday, a day after he signed a two-year, $6.15-million contract? "I think there's going to be more pucks and bodies at the net," he said.

It came perilously close as to whether Stepan, entering his fourth season on Broadway, would be one of those bodies.

Stepan and his agent initially sought a long-term deal in excess of $4 million per year from the cap-strapped Rangers, and president and general manager Glen Sather drew the line on two years, for slightly less than $3 million per. As a restricted free agent without arbitration rights, Stepan's only leverage was to not show up at camp and keep negotiating.

Based on comparables, Stepan deserved more dough. He produced the eighth-most points (56-84-140) in the last three years among NHL players who finished last year at age 23. The Hurricanes' Jeff Skinner, for example, who is averaging $5.25 million in a six-year pact, was 64-67-131.

Last Thursday, Stepan accepted a backloaded deal, worth $2.3 million this season and $3.85 million next season, with the second number guaranteeing a higher qualifying offer as a restricted free agent in 2015-16.

But the financials weren't the only breaking point. Stepan has extra motivation: He dearly wants to compete for the U.S. Olympic Team in Sochi, Russia, in February. He has not only the speed and skill but the experience. In 2011, he led the U.S. squad in scoring with two goals and five assists in seven games at the World Championships in Slovakia. And the previous year, he captained the American gold-medal winners in the World Junior Championships.

The chance to represent the U.S. has been on his mind since he was invited to the team's orientation camp in Arlington, Va., in late September, when he was the only NHL player there who was unsigned. Team USA GM David Poile said the final roster, only about half of which will come from the 2010 squad, would be based on a three-month audition in the NHL.

"It's not complicated," Stepan said. "First I need to play well for the Rangers, and things will take care of themselves."

That time has come.

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