Stepan could be one of first Senators dealt as Ottawa looks to trade deadline

Head coach D.J. Smith talks about why it is important for the Ottawa Senators to have their prospects playing at some level this season.

There was never much chance the Senators were going to be buyers at the 2021 trade deadline.

The best that was hoped for was a step forward as a group and to make some noise in the new Canadian Division, if not actually threaten for a playoff spot. Of course, hearts were light back in the heady days of training camp a little over a month ago.

“A realistic expectation, what we have in mind is to make the playoffs,” said third-year winger Brady Tkachuk on the eve of the regular season. “We’ve got so many veteran guys who have won, who have got the experience. They’ve won the Stanley Cup. I think we have the tools. We have young guys eager to learn. It’s seven teams, top four, in a short season. Anything can happen.”

Anything still can, I suppose, although the realistic thought now is that the Senators will try to play a spoiler role for the rest of the season and let their young players gain precious experience. Some of those veterans Tkachuk referred to will become trading chips.

After Thursday’s 5-1 loss in Winnipeg, Ottawa has five points in 15 games, a record of 2-12-1 while being held to two goals or fewer for the past five games. The Senators are 12 points behind the fourth place Jets and playoff probability charts created this week had their playoff chances rated so close to zero that the line was indistinguishable from the bottom of the chart. The Senators’ seventh place probability stood at 97 per cent.

Stuff happens. Their roster and level of play have improved dramatically over the past ten days and there could be a few more victories on the horizon.

Soon, though, the focus will be on player development, a lottery pick at this summer’s draft and acquiring assets through trade. The trade deadline is not until April 12, but the Senators are already open for business. They have nine pending unrestricted free agents on their current roster and taxi squad, several of whom could be useful pieces for a contending team.

Here’s the trick: while giving the kids a chance to play, Ottawa also has to showcase veterans here and there between now and April. Three veterans added prior to the season -- Braydon Coburn, Josh Brown and Cedric Paquette, are healthy scratches most nights and Artem Anisimov just cleared waivers.

Stepan longs to be in USA

One of those nine UFAs is veteran centre Derek Stepan, acquired on Boxing Day for a 2021 second-round draft pick. Both the player and the team appear to regret the deal already as Stepan is desperately missing his wife and three children in Arizona, including a son who was born four days after Stepan was traded to the Senators. Stepan had a few precious bonding moments with his new child, Beckett, before jumping on a plane to Ottawa to begin his quarantine and new life with the Senators. While he is trying and not whining, this is a pandemic-related situation that needs to be rectified if possible.

Looking for some experience down the middle, the personable Stepan was attractive to the Senators for his leadership qualities. It was also appealing that Stepan’s $3-million USD bonus had already been paid by the Coyotes, leaving just $2 million in salary due this season. Stepan does, however, have a remaining salary cap hit of about $4.8 million on a contract that paid him $6.5 million per season on a six-year deal, originally from the New York Rangers.

Senators general manager Pierre Dorion insisted this week that Stepan has not asked for a trade, although it’s clear he is beyond homesick while estranged from his family in the middle of a pandemic.

“We can tell with our conversations that I’ve had with him that I think it’s only human that - when you only see your newborn for a day or two that it can be difficult on any type of human being,” Dorion said on Ottawa sports radio.

On a Zoom call while the team was in Winnipeg Thursday, I asked Stepan about the speculation he would like to move to a team closer to home, and just how difficult this separation has been for him.

“I'd be lying to you to say it hasn’t been on my mind,” Stepan said. “Obviously my family is in Scottsdale and my wife, who has been an absolute rock star, is grinding away with a newborn and two other ones.

“It certainly has been in my head, but at the same time, this is the job, this is the situation we’re in. I’m doing the best I can to stay focused in on Ottawa Senators hockey and that’s really all I can control right now is... helping this group the way I want to and planned to when I first got traded here.”

Whether or not Stepan has directly asked for a trade, it’s clear he hopes the Senators might be able to accommodate his wishes by moving him if they can.

He could help his own trade value by playing a bit better. Stepan has drifted on the depth chart to a third and fourth line centre spot. On Tuesday, against the Oilers, Stepan played 11:41 and lost four of his five faceoffs. Eight Ottawa forwards saw more ice time.

Thursday’s effort will do more to showcase Stepan. He played 15:49 and won 7 of 11 faceoffs (64%), the most of any centre in the game who took at least three draws. Still, Stepan has just one goal and three assists in 14 games.

Stepan missed several days in camp while waiting for his child to be born, and then had to quarantine for a week. So, he only had his first skate on Jan. 10 (along with rookie Tim Stützle) before the Jan. 15 season opener vs. Toronto.

“I’ll be honest with you, I believed that I was going to be able to come and make a bigger impact with my play, right away,” Stepan says. “No training camp, and the situation kind of piled up on me.”

Stepan insists he still enjoys coming to the rink every day and will “battle through,” keeping his focus on helping the Senators improve.

He will need to carve a niche for himself, not just with Ottawa, but on behalf of any team that could use his services down the stretch.

If Stepan is moved to an American team, he will go through COVID-19 protocols again, meaning that a team that wants him would have to keep him isolated temporarily before he could join the roster. Here’s a list of the other eight Ottawa UFAs and their remaining cap hits:

• F Artem Anisimov ($3.3M)

• F Cedric Paquette ($1.2M)

• F Alex Galchenyuk ($780,000)

• F Micheal Haley (0, two-way contract)

• F Matthew Peca (0, two-way contract)

• D Erik Gudbranson ($2.9M)

• D Mike Reilly ($1.1M)

• D Braydon Coburn ($463,000)

Murray leaves game with injury

Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, starting goaltender Matt Murray had to leave Thursday’s game after two periods with an injury. Murray appeared to be shaken up in a collision with Senators defenceman Nikita Zaitsev late in the second. Head coach D.J. Smith said afterward that Murray was kept out as a “precaution.”

On Friday, Smith announced Murray won’t play Saturday versus the Jets. Ottawa will use a tandem of Marcus Hogberg (4.88 GAA and .836 save percentage in seven games) and Filip Gustavsson, who has not played a game since suiting up for Sodertalje SK of the Swe-1 League last fall.

Prospect Joey Daccord is expected to start for the Belleville Senators in their first AHL game of the season in Laval on Friday.

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