While Ottawa went into Covid-19 shutdown Boxing Day, General Manager Pierre Dorion did a little curbside shopping of his own late Saturday evening, swapping a previously-acquired second-round 2021 pick from the Columbus Blue Jackets to the Arizona Coyotes for veteran centre Derek Stepan.
The 30-year old compiled 28 points (10 goals. 18 assists) in 70 games with the Coyotes last season – adding five points (one goal, four assists) in nine playoff appearances.
Dorion said in a team statement, “Derek’s acquisition provides us with important stability at centre heading into the season. 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.”
A 10-year NHL pro, Stepan will provide just that. He’s been an alternate captain in each of his past six campaigns, including his three in Arizona and three with the New York Rangers.
While some pundits claim the reason the Minnesota native was acquired was due to his $6.5 million cap hit, the club was already $9M above the cap floor of $60.2M when the deal was consummated. The crux of the move is Stepan is on the books for $2M in actual salary this season due to recently receiving a $3M bonus.
Note, all salaries will be pro-rated this season as well. But that’s something for another day as it’s late in the evening, and math…
There’s no denying Stepan’s offence has been in decline the past two seasons. After five consecutive 50-plus point years, his numbers dropped to 35,28.
But if the Rangers 2008 second-rounder can perform to the level Dorion feels he can and is able to mentor the team’s young centres, then it’s money well spent – that’s even if it’s at the expense of a second-round pick.
The “Canadian Division” is a tough one, and Stepan can lend every bit of his 845 games including playoffs worth of experience to their young roster.
The Senators currently hold two 2021 seconds after the trade. Dorion may not able to recoup another second-rounder at the April 12 trade deadline, but Stepan himself, Artem Anisimov, Alex Galchenyuk, Erik Gudbranson, Mike Reilly are all on expiring contracts that may garner late-round picks.
However, more importantly, the comments made by head coach D.J. Smith on TSN1200 this past Tuesday ring true, “We don’t have veterans down the middle like some other teams in our division. We’re going to have to learn on the fly here. But you know what? That’s part of the NHL. (Josh) Norris has a year under his belt in the American Hockey League. Logan Brown does too. Chris Tierney is our one veteran who’s been in the league a long time and can play up and down the lineup. And a guy I’m looking to bounce back after a bit of an off year as they say, and he would say the same is Colin White. He’s put on some weight. He’s stronger. We look forward to him coming back and competing every night. I think right now, we’re young there, but with the young guys that we have, and a guy like (Shane) Pinto (arriving next season), that’s a position over time we’re going to get strong at.”
Stepan certainly fits the bill of a “veteran up the middle.” However, his acquisition may come at a cost. Surveying the Senators’ current roster, the team will likely open with White or Tierney between Brady Tkachuk and Evgenii Dadonov. Norris, the AHL Rookie of the Year should assuredly hold one of the pivot spots, with Stepan leading either the third or fourth line.
Logan Brown played a little bit of left wing last season and may be asked to do so again. Then there’s Artem Anisimov who’s in the final year of his contract. Anisimov suffered a concussion on March 3rd and missed the club’s final four games, but Dorion mentioned the week prior that all players were ready to go for upcoming training camp December 31.
Smith also intimated in the interview, “We kind of know who we want to play together, but we have some juggling parts with (Tim) Stueztle over at the World Juniors. When he’s going to come back, you have to plug certain guys in different spots. We certainly have tinkered with lines and partners.”
The addition of Stepan gives the Senators’ coach more options. And in a condensed 56-game schedule there will be injuries along with players requiring rest. It’s just a fact – not to mention the unknown spectre of COVID, which can strike anyone at any time.