The Arizona Coyotes got a massive return for Derek Stepan.
When then-Arizona Coyotes GM John Chayka traded away the seventh overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft and promising former first-round defenseman Anthony DeAngelo for the rights to Derek Stepan and goaltender Antti Raanta, it felt like a major step in the right direction.
Sure, the move hurt the team’s overall farm system depth – as the unit currently ranks 17th in the league according to our friends at The Hockey Writer – but after suffering through the Wayne Gretsky years and an eight-year Dave Tippett tenure that went from moderately good to moderately bad in a hurry, Chayka was ready to go all-in on giving new head coach Rick Tocchet everything he needed to be successful.
In hindsight, the Coyotes would probably be better off with DeAngelo and the seventh overall pick – though Lias Andersson hasn’t worked out quite as well as players selected after him like Nick Suzuki and Kailer Yamamoto – but hey, you live, and you learn.
More from Puck Prose
- Detroit Red Wings 2023 Rookie Camp Has Plenty of Ups and Downs
- This Columbus Blue Jackets rookie doesn’t want to be forgotten
- 2 trades the Boston Bruins must make to secure the Stanley Cup
- 3 reasons the Avalanche won’t win the Stanley Cup in 2024
- This is a big year for Alex Turcotte and the Los Angeles Kings
Fast forward to December of 2020, and the Coyotes have found themselves at a crossroads.
After attempting another blockbuster trade that acquired Taylor Hall (and Blake Speers) from the New Jersey Devils for Kevin Bahl, Nick Merkley, Nate Schnarr, a conditional third-round pick in 2021, and the eventual draft rights for Dawson Mercer, the Coyotes suddenly find themselves a middle-of-the-pack squad once more in a new West Division that cruelly features the Central’s top two teams, the St. Louis Blues, and the Colorado Avalanche.
This wouldn’t be all that bad if the Coyotes had a top-line featuring Hall, Clayton Keller, and Christian Dvorak, but the team opted against signing the former first overall pick and instead allowed him to sign an unrestricted free agent deal to join Jack Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres on a one-year, $8 million deal.
Boy, swapping out Arizona for Buffalo? That feels like a less than lateral move from a climate standpoint.
Why did this happen? Well, partially because the man who acquired him, Chayka, formally resigned from the team right before the Edmonton bubble, but also because the Coyotes weren’t willing to shell out the sort of contract the Calgary, Alberta native was looking for – in large part because of their unwieldy financial situation that was already $2.4 million over the $81.5 cap ceiling before Hall made a penny in 2020-21.
So not only were the Coyotes unable to retain one of the better wings in the NHL, but they’d need to jettison another player to free up cap space and hopefully land a quality asset in the process.
No pressure, right?
Well, as it turns out, there really wasn’t all that much pressure at all, as the Coyotes’ new general manager Bill Armstrong was able to parlay our old friend Stepan into a second-round pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft from the Ottawa Senators.
Now, why, exactly, would the Senators opt to surrender a second-round pick for a 30-year-old center when they are easily the worst team in the Canadian Division and the Atlantic Division? Honestly, it beats me. It seems like a slightly wiser move to instead use said second-rounder on a high-upside player and rebuild a future contender with a strong farm system. But apparently, that isn’t the route Pierre Dorian had in mind.
No, after years of losing, the Senators wanted to add a veteran two-way center who has put up 40-plus points in all but his most recent NHL season, and they were willing to pay an absolute premium to get that done.
Will it be hard for the Coyotes to replace Stepan straight up? Sure. Even at 30 coming off of a down year, the Hastings, Minnesota native was still a borderline lock to play center on Arizona’s second line behind Dvorak, but when you can get a second-round pick for a player the team needed to get rid of, it’s pretty hard to say no.
Heck, one could have made a very good argument that the Coyotes may have needed to sweeten the pot with a pick of their own to get off of Stepan’s contract heading into training camp, let alone acquire a premium pick for his services.
To make matters all the more enticing, when Marian Hossa is officially moved to long-term injured reserve, the Senators will have even more money to play with over the course of the 2020-21 season – either to sign free agents like Mike Hoffman, trade for an interesting short/long-term fit or weaponize their cap further to acquire even more draft capital to take on undesirable contracts.
If a rebuild really is on the way for the Coyotes, at least they are starting it off on the right foot.
With the postseason more or less a lock for the top three teams in the Western Division – the St. Louis Blues, the Colorado Avalanche, the Las Vegas Kings – it’s clear the best-case scenario for the Arizona Coyotes is a fourth seed win over the Minnesota Wild before having to win a pair of intradivision playoff series. Even if the Coyotes are firing at their absolute premium, that seems like a pretty tough ask. No, the 2020-21 NHL season feels like a bit of a transitional period for Rick Tocchet’s squad, where the team’s new front office can see who should stay and who is superfluous moving forward. Whether they win a lot of games or not quite enough to make it worth their while, it’s at least encouraging to know there’s a second-round pick via the Columbus Blue Jackets waiting in the Coyotes’ future when the season comes to an end – all for trading away an impending UFA on the last year of his deal.