This past weekend the Arizona Coyotes traded center Derek Stepan to the Ottawa Senators for a second-round pick. The trade leaves the Coyotes with a pretty big gap at center, that they are going to need to fill.
On the whole, the Coyotes have not changed much since last season. But even though the team is largely the same, things could not be more different at center. Last season the Coyotes had Christian Dvorak, Derek Stepan, Carl Söderberg, and Brad Richardson to look to. With the team trading Stepan and not re-signing Söderberg or Richardson they are going to look very different at center.
The Coyotes currently have seven players on the roster that are listed as centers if the team decides to replace Stepan internally, Drake Caggiula, Christian Dvorak, John Hayden, Barrett Hayton, Johan Larsson, Tyler Pitlick, and Nick Schmaltz.
Christian Dvorak staying at center seems like a no-brainer. Given this is the Coyotes it seems likely that the team will cycle through linemates, and I expect to see Clayton Keller, Conor Garland, and Phil Kessel sharing the ice with him throughout the season.
Since acquiring him, the team has used Schmaltz on both the right-wing and at center. With no Stepan, it seems likely the team is going to want to put Schmaltz at center full-time, potentially with Clayton Keller. Schmaltz and Keller had great chemistry when the team first acquired him from the Chicago Blackhawks, and putting them together again could be what the two of them need.
The biggest question is going to be Barrett Hayton. Hayton played twenty games with the Coyotes last season, missing some games as a healthy scratch, others rehabbing a shoulder injury from the World Juniors. It is unknown if he is ready to play full-time in the NHL, but he is AHL eligible this season. Even if he is ready to play in the NHL the team may also elect to have him spend time on the wing, allowing him to adjust to the professional game in a less demanding position.
If Hayton isn't ready, which is a strong possibility, the bottom-six is going to be interesting. Johan Larsson centered an effective checking line with the Buffalo Sabres and could serve the Coyotes well on the third line.
The fourth line is likely going to feature a lot of uncertainty. Pitlick may get a chance to play for the full season, or the team may elect to have him split time with Drake Caggiula and John Hayden. Given that the Coyotes are going to be playing the Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche, and St. Louis Blues, a heavier fourth line may be needed.