Stepan said he sensed he might not return after the Rangers lost to the Ottawa Senators in the second round of the 2016-17 playoffs.
“It wasn’t a complete shock; I would say I was surprised,” Stepan said of the late June trade in which the Rangers also sent goaltender Antti Raanta to Arizona for the seventh overall pick in the draft and defenseman Anthony DeAngelo. “I knew the organization wanted to make a change. And I knew that Arizona wanted me for quite some time.”
He added: “You go through so many emotions in such a short period of time. First, there’s sadness, then frustration, then it’s excitement when you get a call from the new G.M. The organization here did an unbelievable job. They made me feel excited about the trade.”
The Rangers’ weakness down the middle and a struggling power play are key reasons they are facing an uphill battle to reach the postseason for the 12th time in the last 13 seasons.
Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes and the veteran David Desharnais have mostly filled the center slot and rotated on a de facto fourth line. The Rangers chose not to keep either Lias Andersson or Filip Chytil, the teenage centers they drafted in the first round in June, on the roster.
Vigneault has publicly shown patience despite his team’s plodding start, choosing to focus on developing his players’ confidence.
“Hayzie, Mika, David and depending who we use on the fourth line are adjusting to different minutes, big minutes,” Vigneault said. “It’s a learning curve. Nobody is pointing a finger or trying to blame anything. We’re all working through this.”
Fans are apparently growing disillusioned. A game against the Nashville Predators last Saturday afternoon failed to sell out — the first time in almost six years every ticket was not sold at the Garden for a home game.
Credit Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
The Rangers followed that 4-2 win over the defending Western Conference champions with an uninspired 60 minutes on Monday night, falling to the San Jose Sharks, 4-1. The Rangers failed to score on all six power-play chances and only solved Sharks goaltender Martin Jones on a third-period goal by Zibanejad, who leads the team with six.
Stepan was also one of the team’s most reliable defensive forwards, playing regularly on the penalty kill. The Rangers have given up the first goal in six of their games, often early in the first period.
They took a step on Tuesday to alleviate their blue line logjam, sending DeAngelo to Hartford of the American Hockey League. They called up Boo Nieves, who could play center on the fourth line.
The Rangers’ captain, Ryan McDonagh, who joined the team during Stepan’s rookie season, said when his fellow Minnesotan skates onto Garden ice as a visitor, it will bring back odd feelings experienced when former teammates like Ryan Callahan, Hagelin, Brassard and Brandon Dubinsky returned as opponents.
“He’s knows it’s going to be tough coming into this building as an away player for the first time,” said McDonagh, who is also striving to find his game with different defensive partners after Girardi’s departure. “Derek is a guy who just keeps going through his preparation, and as soon as that puck drops, he’s going to play hockey like everyone else.”
McDonagh added that there was shock when he saw images of Stepan wearing the burgundy, black and white uniform of the Coyotes instead of the Rangers’ red, white and blue.
“Oh my gosh, it was weird seeing him in his Phoenix gear,” said McDonagh, who also played with Stepan at the University of Wisconsin. “That was the moment when it hits you that he was traded, that he’s finally moved on to a different team.”
Stepan, who scored a hat trick in his first game as a Ranger in 2010 and a Game 7 overtime goal to eliminate Washington in the 2015 playoffs, said he hoped his emotions would not overwhelm him on Thursday.
“You’re here for seven years, you get roots deep, and it’s hard to get them out,” he said. “I have no idea what to expect. It’s going to be a difficult game.”
Stepan has two goals and five assists with Arizona. His linemates have mostly been Clayton Keller, 19, who leads Arizona with six goals, and Max Domi, 22, who appreciates Stepan’s leadership.
“He knows how to win, and his work ethic is awesome,” Domi said. “He’s a really vocal guy, helping you constructively. I just soak it all in. Ever since he got here, he’s fit right in.”
Stepan admitted he had not been able to keep close tabs on the travails of his former teammates. Between the time difference and his job, his remaining energy away from the rink is focused on his wife, Stephanie; son, Max; and newborn daughter, Weslie.
And then there is Jake, the dog he decided to rescue from Sochi, Russia, after the 2014 Winter Olympics who has since experienced life in Manhattan, then in Westchester County and now in Scottsdale, Ariz.
“My yard has turf instead of grass, and Jake has had to adjust,” Stepan said. “But he loves the pool. This dog swims all the time. He’s the most spoiled dog on the planet.”