Step into reality: The New York Rangers should expose Derek Stepan in the expansion draft 1
Feb 7, 2017; New York, NY, USA; New York Rangers center Derek Stepan (21) takes a shot against the Anaheim Ducks during the second period at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Admittedly, it sounds crazy on the surface, but Jeff Gorton and the New York Rangers should expose Derek Stepan in the expansion draft.

Safe. Surprising. Sensational — this describes the escalation of the Rangers’ Michael Grabner this season. Protecting him in the expansion draft is something many New York Rangers fans feel is a necessity, but at what cost?

Listen, I’m a “Stepan guy.”

I’ve defended him for years because of what I think he brings to the New York Rangers: a rare combination of youth, on-ice vision and an uncommonly high hockey IQ to go along with immeasurable heart and passion. Derek Stepan is a fixture at the seasoned core of this Rangers club and he is one of the players with an entire extra season of NHL hockey under his belt in the playoffs alone (85 total playoff games).

He’s also about to become an anchor instead of just a reliable fixture. At 26-years-old, Stepan’s two-year, full no-trade clause will take effect on July 1 and he’ll also have a modified no-trade until July of 2021. He is paid an annual average salary of $6.5MM against the cap — that’s 1C money — and he has never produced more than 22 goals or broken the 60-point barrier (57).

That’s a lot of dough locked up for a long time in a guy who probably isn’t far from his apex as a player. Shedding that contract, while it would pain many Ranger fans to see, would provide some much-needed cap flexibility for Rangers’ GM Jeff Gorton.

This, however, is not about getting rid of Derek Stepan.

What it is about is something that is so glaringly obvious, it should simply be assumed at this point: the Rangers need to protect Michael Grabner from the Las Vegas Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft. In order to do that, Gorton has a lot of thinking to do.

Grabby’s numbers speak for themselves. To-date, he’s an astonishing +28 (yes, that’s pretty amazing for a third/fourth liner) and leads all Rangers skaters with 26 goals to go along with 10 assists in 55 games played. His goal total currently has him tied for fifth in the NHL with guys named Vladimir (Tarasenko) and Alex (Ovechkin). Twenty-five of those goals are of the even strength variety (first in the NHL) and he’s taken only eight penalty minutes all year.

Grabner also possesses the highest goals per time on ice in the league as the only player averaging more than two goals per 60 minutes (2.03). He has, undoubtedly, been driving this club’s offense from various lines all season, seemingly skating into a breakaway per game while finding chemistry on a potent line next to J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes.

He’s doing all of that for $1.65MM against the cap.

For perspective, Grabner’s cap hit puts him in between forwards Kyle Clifford and John Mitchell. They have combined for seven goals this year.

Credit goes to Gorton for a savvy signing. However, with the expansion draft looming and the Rangers likely to opt for protecting seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie, it’s become clear that one of Gorton’s most important decisions as GM is coming with it.

Electing not to protect Step is not a guarantee he’s drafted away. It’s a draft, not a giveaway. Vegas could decide to opt for goaltender Antti Raanta, defensemen Kevin Klein or Nick Holden, or take another unprotected forward.

While I’d be sad to see Stepan leave Broadway, freeing up $6.5 million in space with the salary cap expected to be stagnant or only rise marginally would yield a lot of flexibility.

Now’s the time to face a tough fact: the Rangers have to make a tough choice and expose Stepan to Las Vegas.

Expect a wild trade deadline and tons of fireworks during the expansion draft, starting June 18.

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Lawyer (to be). New Yorker. Rangers, Knicks, Mets, Jets, Red Bulls (yeah it's been a bit rough). Oh and Tottenham Hotspur.