While there is no perfect time to get traded, Derek Stepan deserves consideration for being dealt during one of the most complicated times of his life.
Living in Arizona, Stepan and his wife, Stephanie, are expecting their third child in early January, and found out on Boxing Day that they were involved in a cross-border trade to the Ottawa Senators during a pandemic.
“I thought my first trade was a whirlwind — this one kind of lapped it a couple of times,” said Stepan in a Monday Zoom call hosted by the Senators.
Stepan, 30, was first traded from the New York Rangers to the Arizona Coyotes in 2017.
“I'd be lying if I said it wasn’t stressful, but as the dust settles here, we’re starting to cross off things on the list,” added Stepan.
“There were some moments of stress and obviously my wife is pregnant — right at the end — so she has had an emotional roller coaster. But we’re getting there, seeing light at the end of the tunnel.”
On the hockey side, Stepan said he is “super pumped,” and will be ready to begin his protocols and indoctrination with the Senators as soon as his new child is born and settled.
“I’m as jacked up as I can be,” to join the Senators, Stepan said.
Stepan’s trade was part of a series of moves by the revamped Senators just days before training camp opens on Thursday.
In what can only be described as a post-Christmas shopping spree the Senators:
• Acquired the veteran centre Stepan from Arizona;
• Signed ace forward prospect Tim Stuetzle to a three-year entry-level deal;
• Added two Stanley Cup winners from Tampa Bay in defenceman Braydon Coburn and forward Cedric Paquette. The Senators also picked up a 2022 second-round pick in that deal.
For Stepan, in the last year of a $6.5 million US contract (including a $3 million signing bonus paid by Arizona), Ottawa gave up a second-round draft pick (originally belonging to Columbus) in 2021.
The native of Hastings, Minn., will wear No. 15 with the Senators, his number with the bantam Hastings Raiders back in the day.
Stepan said he wasn’t shocked by the trade news, as rumours began circulating a week ago.
Meanwhile, in the other trade, the Senators took advantage of Tampa Bay’s salary cap issues.
Ottawa provided salary cap relief by taking on $3.35 million US in contracts from Paquette and Coburn and sent to Tampa goaltender Anders Nilsson, still recovering from post-concussion syndrome, and the contract of forward Marian Gaborik who is on long-term injured reserve. Neither is expected to play this season.
With the moves, the Senators projected cap hit jumps to $70.5M from just under $69 million.
In a nutshell, the Senators added strong forward depth in Stepan and Paquette, plus solidified their defence with Coburn, who didn’t play a ton for the Stanley Cup champs last season but will be a nice addition to a blue line that is led by Thomas Chabot.
While it’s expected that young centres like Josh Norris and Logan Brown will get an opportunity this season, Ottawa was thin on experience down the middle. Stepan will be a steadying influence on Norris, Colin White and Brown, and be a complement to a younger veteran in Chris Tierney. Likely, he will have rookie Stuetzle on his left side.
Stepan has already had conversations with several of his new teammates, including Brady Tkachuk. He sees potential for an offensive attack.
“I like playing with a younger group,” said Stepan, whose affable personality comes across in interviews. “I like to teach them. I really feel at this point in my career I’m ready to get back to that production I was at early in my career.”
It has been a busy off-season for general manager Pierre Dorion, who previously acquired the services of goaltender Matt Murray, forwards Evgenii Dadonov, Alex Galchenyuk and Austin Watson, plus defencemen Erik Gudbranson and Josh Brown.
“Derek’s acquisition provides us with important stability at centre heading into the season,” Dorion said, after the trade with Arizona. “He plays a 200-foot game and has proven to be a reliable special teams player throughout his career. His addition to our lineup will also represent a valuable leadership presence within our group.”
Though Stepan’s offensive numbers declined in the last couple of years with the Coyotes from his consistent 50-plus points days with the New York Rangers, he will have some skilled forwards to work in Ottawa, including Tkachuk, Dadonov and Stuetzle.
Paquette, 27, who brought forechecking energy to the Lightning, contributed seven goals and 18 points over 61 games in a checking role last season.
With Paquette, Tkachuk, Stuetzle, Connor Brown, Watson, Nick Paul etc. the Senators will be hard on the puck in the offensive zone and should track well in the neutral zone.
Coburn, 35, played just 40 games for Tampa in 2019-20, contributing four points. He averaged 14:03 of ice time.
Pending UFAs give the Senators options
The beauty of the acquisitions by Dorion is that he didn’t take on any term. Paquette, Coburn and Stepan are all pending unrestricted free agents and could easily be flipped at the trade deadline if that makes sense at the time.
In fact, Ottawa will have other pending free agents in Gudbranson and Mike Reilly on defence and Artem Anisimov and Galchenyuk at forward.
If the Senators are not in the North Division playoff race they will have plenty of trading chips.
Excitement over Stuetzle
The signing of Stuetzle ends any concern the fan base might have had over the 18-year-old forward getting his release from Mannheim of the German League and joining Ottawa this season.
Stuetzle, who dazzled at times in undermanned Germany’s lopsided defeat at the hands of Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships, will travel to Ottawa from Edmonton as soon as the round-robin ends.
“Tim possesses an exceptional blend of both speed and skill and a playmaking ability that our fans are going to enjoy watching for several years to come,” Dorion said. “He’s a dynamic forward who we expect to become a key piece of our roster as we continue trending towards icing an eventual elite-level team.”
Stuetzle, drafted third overall by Ottawa in October, broke his hand at training camp in Mannheim and required surgery on Oct. 15. He has clearly recovered, as evidenced by the 26 minutes of ice time he had against Finland at the world juniors.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling and I can’t wait to get started with them,” Stuetzle said in a TV interview from Edmonton. “I hope I can make the team as fast as possible.”
For a teenager, Stuetzle plays with enormous confidence and gumption. He is not likely to be intimidated by the NHL, and will be even less so having the likes of Tkachuk, Watson, Paquette and Gudbranson in a lineup that should be robust and difficult to play against.
At least, that is the plan.