The Ottawa Senators announced late this evening that they had acquired centre Derek Stepan from the Arizona Coyotes for a 2021 second round pick. The trade solidifies the rumours that TSN 1200‘s Shawn Simpson had heard earlier in the week.
I wrote about those rumours here, so I will try not to go on at length revisiting much of the same information now.
In Stepan, the Senators are getting a 30-year centre who struggles to win faceoffs (45.9 career FO%) and appears to be in the declining phase of his career.
stepan might be ottawa's fifth best center pic.twitter.com/o0Yfzo5fny
— dom at the athletic (@domluszczyszyn) December 27, 2020
Using Evolving-Hockey.com‘s ‘wins above replacement’ (WAR) and goals above replacement (GAR), Stepan has always a valuable offensive contributor. Those values have waned in recent years which lends itself to the idea that Stepan has already entered the diminished returns part of his career.
Stepan’s contract has one-year remaining at a cap hit of $6.5 million. For a player who has failed to crack the 40-point plateau once over the last two seasons, that contract is not particularly palatable. Fortunately for the Senators however, the Coyotes have already paid his $3.0 million signing bonus. Meaning, Ottawa will only be on the hook for his $2.0 million base salary.
Stepan’s addition assuredly means that he will start the season playing as one of Ottawa’s top two centres with Chris Tierney. For fans hoping to see younger players like Logan Brown, Colin White or even a Josh Norris be given a realistic opportunity to not only crack this roster but be given a chance to play with the more skilled players in the top-six, the Stepan trade dampers that possibility.
Tonight’s trade essentially signals that management is comfortable sheltering its prospects in what is expected to be another losing season.
Was the cost for that comfort worth it?
Make no mistake, trading draft picks is fine. The reason why a general manager stockpiles picks is to ensure that the organization can: 1) add young and inexpensive depth to it; or 2) trade surplus picks add a more valuable piece (ideally with controllable term) to the roster.
The Senators possessed three 2021 second round picks thanks to their rebuilding efforts. Obviously, Pierre Dorion felt like this surplus afforded him the opportunity to add a veteran to the mix.
With the 2020-21 season shortened to 56 games and the trade deadline falling on April 12th, the Senators will play 43 games before having to make a decision on Stepan’s future.
As I wrote about in the aforementioned Stepan rumour piece, if you are looking for a silver lining to his production woes, his team experienced a drop in its on-ice shooting percentage when Stepan was on the ice. With some improved luck, there is a chance that Stepan can resemble his productive self.
If he can find it, maybe there is a chance that the Senators can move him at the deadline for a similarly valued asset. It’s not a terrible bet… if you’re not wagering much on the player.
And therein lies the problem: Stepan was the kind of player that the Senators should have bought low on.
Trading draft capital for what might only amount to half a normal season’s worth of games out of Stepan is a classic overpay. It is simply another instance of this organization falling into the trap of casually throwing away valuable assets on established NHL players whose best days are behind them.
Pierre Dorion’s predecessor, Bryan Murray, was notorious for this and it seems like this trait has been passed on.
Bobby Ryan. Dion Phaneuf. Derick Brassard. Matt Duchene. Derek Stepan.
Sizable opportunity costs were used to acquire these name players. Ignoring the easily identifiable red flags accompanying all of these deals, the concern is that Stepan is just another player in the list of ones who have struggled to move the needle for this hockey club because: 1) they were on the decline; or 2) the team had poor underlying numbers and simply ignored filling the other glaring holes on the roster.
In this market, there is a tendency to be very forgiving towards the team’s general managers. With Bryan Murray and now with Dorion, there is a certain empathetic sentiment with respect to how difficult it must be to work under Eugene Melnyk when this team is trying to be competitive.
Understandably, it cannot be easy, but I find this belief to be reductive. At some point, Dorion has to held accountable.
To his credit, Dorion has earned a fair bit of praise for stockpiling draft picks and young depth. In gutting the Senators’ roster these past few seasons, he acquired a ton of prospect capital and that deserves some recognition. At the same time however, there needs to be an understanding that auctioning off assets to the highest bidder is one of the easiest things a general manager can do.
Inevitably, when you acquire the volume of young assets and bottom out, the organization can only get better as these prospects mature and reach the NHL level. And as the team gets better organically as these prospects mature, the risk is that organization will never really feel obligated to address the processes, philosophies and shortcomings that contributed to this organization having to tear it all down in the first place.
It is a really weird feeling to reconcile.
On one hand, I like a lot of the prospects and young pieces that the Senators have added. On the other hand, as we transition out of this rebuild to a more competitive team, management has to make smarter and more informed trades.
This rebuild will not be successful without improvement in the performance of the front office.
For me, the Stepan trade is a microcosm of what has often ailed this organization over the past 10 years: poor asset management and a willingness to overpay for intangibles.