Derek Stepan has a plan for Thursday. He’s just not sure he will follow it.
He wants to keep the emotions off the ice when his new team meets his old team, his first time skating against guys he grew up playing with in the NHL, in the building he called home for seven years. He tried getting some of the uneasy feelings out of the way Wednesday when he came back to Madison Square Garden to practice in a new sweater, trading in Rangers blue for Coyotes red, walking up the ramp and taking a turn to the visitors’ dressing room for a change.
But he can’t promise anything.
“We’ll see about [Thursday],” he said. “I’m not so sure it’s going to feel like a normal day. I’m an emotional guy. I spent seven years here. It’s going to be a rough day, I think.”
The 27-year-old center has had this day on his mind since he was traded to the Coyotes in June along with goalie Antti Raanta. The Rangers got back Tony DeAngelo and the seventh pick in the 2017 draft, which turned into Swedish center Lias Andersson.
Stepan remembered getting a call from Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton that day and knowing that he wasn’t just calling to check in. Stepan knew since breakup day that there would likely be some changes made to the Rangers’ core that had so much success over a seven-year run without the ultimate prize of a Stanley Cup.
After the quick call, Stepan told his wife, six months pregnant with their second child, and it began to sink in that the life they had established in New York was suddenly being uprooted.
“It’s funny, you spend seven years of your life being a Ranger, dying a Ranger, coming into this organization ready to go through broken jaw, broken leg,” said Stepan, who tallied 128 goals and 232 assists while missing just 25 games. “You do a lot of great things. Within a week, you switch and now I’m completely invested into Arizona hockey. I’m going to bleed Coyote colors now.”
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said Wednesday that Stepan has long been one of his favorite players.
“Derek Stepan was low-maintenance,” Vigneault said. “He understood the game. … We know we lost an important part of our dressing room and our team, but we were looking at the future.”
Stepan has stepped into a similar role on a rebuilding team while anchoring the top line between 22-year-old Max Domi and 19-year-old Clayton Keller.
“Everything he does is top-notch,” Domi said. “He’s a born leader.”
Focused on the Coyotes’ search for their first win amidst their 0-8-1 start, Stepan hasn’t been caught up in the Rangers’ own woes.
“Honestly, we got enough going on in our room,” he said. “I’m not going to try to figure out what’s going on in their room.”
But that doesn’t mean he won’t care about the guys he faces off against Thursday night. He planned to get dinner with a few of them Wednesday night. He talked about how he missed his teammates, including Ryan McDonagh, with whom he had played for 10 years. He did not miss the New York traffic.
Stepan was less certain, though, about how their reunion on the ice would all play out.
“I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m ready, I’m all these things,” he said. “Stick to the plan, right? I don’t even know if there is a plan, but I’m telling myself there is one.”