Derek Stepan read the trade rumours last week, but as they started to build steam, he was still somewhat surprised to receive a call that he was officially leaving Arizona Saturday evening.
In his first roster player swap since taking over as Coyotes General Manager, Bill Armstrong dealt Stepan to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for a 2021 second-round pick (previously acquired by Senators via Columbus).
“I was going to say Wednesday of last week, it might have been even Tuesday, the rumours kind of picked up a little bit. It was kind of surprising at that moment. I was kind of in a spot where it was out my control, so we went about our business,” Stepan said during a Zoom call availability Monday. “I had some conversations with people in Arizona. That was kind of it, and I didn’t really think more of it. On late Saturday night I got a call that it happened. Surprised? A little bit, I’m not overly shocked. I kind of understood the situation I was in coming into Arizona on the last year of my contract.”
With the Coyotes being $3 million above the salary with training camp drawing ever-so closer, Armstrong was seeking to move a player or acquire much-needed cap relief. He chose the former.
That being said, the 30-year old is excited to join his new team.
“I really am (excited). I’ve looked at this roster. I talked with the coach (D.J. Smith). I talked to a couple of the young guys already. It’s something that I really enjoy, playing with a younger group. I like being able to teach them. I really feel like that at this point in my career, I’m ready to get back to that production I was at for the majority of my career.”
Stepan explained, “I told myself when the pandemic hit and we stopped, that if we got back up playing, I was going to make adjustments to my game. When I got into the bubble, I felt like I was productive, and I played the way I wanted to in the playoff hockey. And I found something within myself here. So, to be moving to new a team, and having a new coach, having a new number – all these things, these are things that are really going to spark me. I’m excited. I’m in weird spot currently, but it doesn’t hide the fact that I’m super-excited to get, and get back to the hockey that I want to play.”
After a disappointing 2019-20 season offensively, 28 points (10 goals, 18 assists) in 70 games, the veteran centre added five points (one goal, four assists) in nine postseason appearances. Stepan has compiled six 50-plus point campaigns during his 10-year NHL career. However, his production decreased steadily during his three years in the desert – posted totals of 56, 35 and 28 last season.
“I felt really good in the (Edmonton) bubble, I felt I played some really good hockey against Nashville and Colorado. I’m ready to go. I can’t wait. I’m super-pumped. There’s some family stuff that makes it a little bit of hiccup. For the most part, the hockey side of it, I am jacked up as can be.”
The “family stuff” is Derek’s wife, Stephanie is due to give birth to the couple’s third child in early January.
“I’m super-excited to get over a hurdle here in the next two weeks and get up there and start playing hockey for the Senators. As of right now, I’m going to be pretty honest about it. We’re kind of just in wait-moment, and see when the baby comes. And when the baby gets here, I’ll do my best to get up there as fast as possible. The baby is due in early January. They say it’s the third, but they can’t really predict it. You hope that in the situation I’m in, that the baby can come at a good time and be healthy. But as of right now, we’re sitting and waiting.”
If all goes well, Stepan will have passed through a mandatory seven-day quarantine in time for the Senators’ opener January 15 versus the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The New York Rangers 2008 second-round selection will don number 15, a number worn while playing for the Hasting Raiders Bantam club in Stepan’s home State of Minnesota. Wearing no. 21 throughout his career, Stepan had no inclination to ask Logan Brown if he’d be willing to part with his current number. Stepan recognized Brown held that number throughout his junior and and now pro career. He didn’t want to “ruffle any feathers.”
The 2010 World Junior gold medalist with the United States will eventually meet up with a few familiar faces upon arrival in Ottawa. Artem Anisimov spent two seasons as Stepan’s teammate with the Rangers. Alex Galchenyuk was a Coyote during Stepan’s second campaign with the club. While Senators’ defenseman Mike Reilly skates with Stepan when he’s home in Minnesota.
The six-foot, 196-pound Stepan mentions Senators’ head coach D.J. Smith has a plan laid for him.
“I had a quick conversation. He knows he’s got a lot young talent and he’s going try to find a spot for me where I can help these guys out. I don’t know if he wants me to reveal, but he kind of hinted at it. I’m going to let him be the one to tell it. I’m not going to ruin it for him.”
Stepan responded during the call to rumours that he wanted out of Arizona.
“The rumours that I was trying to get of here were not true. I think the pregnant wife as a starter, I’m not trying to move my family right now. We were very happy here. I had a great three years here in Arizona. I felt that I put in some hard work and did some big things for this young group. We got better each year. Maybe there’s an asterisk beside it, but we were able to get into the playoffs and play a playoff series. I’ve got a lot of good memories and friends here. It’s a chapter in my life, and we move on. That’s the thing that some people forget is; this business has its ugly moments. To move the way I did, it really opened my eyes to it, that’s for sure.”
An ugly business at times, it is – while Stepan is “super-excited,” it’s definitely a trying time for Derek and his family, especially in a pandemic situation.
“I’d be lying to you if it wasn’t stressful, but as the dust starts to settle here, we’re starting to cross off, checkmark – getting through the list of to-do’s. I’m starting to feel a little bit better. There is some moment of stress. Obviously, my wife is…she’s a pregnant wife that’s about right at the end. She’s had a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, so we’re getting there. We’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It was certainly something. I thought my first trade was a whirlwind. This one kind of lapped it a couple of times.”