Sunday, January 24, 2016

Lee Stempniak has proven to be a smart goal scorer in NHL

By Larry Wigge

Some things change ... others, well, they just don't.

Like that way Lee Stempniak converted a pretty two-on-one break, shoveling the puck into the net in the first period, or in the third period when he tipped a shot by Adam Henrique for a 3-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets.

The two-goal game gave Stempniak five goals and two assists in his last six games and 14 goals for the season with the New Jersey Devils. He has 16 points in his last 25 games (nine goals, nine assists).

The Jets did not re-sign Stempniak, a late-season addition in a trade with the New York Rangers, after he had six goals in 18 regular-season games to help the Jets reach the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

In fact, it seems that every time he looks up the soon to be 34-year-old Stempniak is playing a former team -- St. Louis, Toronto, Phoenix, Calgary, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers or Winnipeg.

"This past summer not signing, it was hard in a sense. But at the same time, I had a lot of confidence in myself last season and a strong finish in Winnipeg and knew I could play," the 5-11, 196 pounder from West Seneca, N.Y. said. "New Jersey was the best fit, not just to make the team but to play a big role on a team. I've embraced that. I think I've earned the coaches' trust and we're a good team."

I recall very early in Stempniak's career in St. Louis Al MacInnis singling him out to then coach Andy Murray.

"We've got a young player who I think should be playing on the first power-play unit. He's got really good hands, a great shot and a knack of finding a way to get the puck in the net," MacInnis said excitedly. He then shook his had and said, "I can't remember his name ... but I can give you his number ... it's No. 12."

Lee Stempniak broke into the NHL with 14 and 27 goals. He now in his 11th season.

This is no rink rat. Stempniak was valedictorian of his senior class at St. Francis High School in Buffalo and majored in economics at Dartmouth, graduating with an impressive 3.6 grade-point average. He interned after his junior year with Goldman Sachs on Wall Street.

By his own admission, Lee was a late-bloomer.

"My parents wanted me to go to college, but the only school that showed an interest in me as a hockey player was Dartmouth," Stempniak said. "It was a program that had been down for a number of years and Bob Gaudet, the coach, sold me on the idea that I would get a great education and have the opportunity to be a big part of the team's resurgence."

Gaudet was right on both counts. Stempniak was a two-time all-America pick and team captain at Dartmouth. You have to remember there are no scholarships in the Ivy League.

Smart, inquisitive, willing to learn ... and very talented. I often joked that he always had a book at his locker. Something I could not pronounce.

"Just trying to keep up with the world," Stempniak said.

This is a hard-working, stay-in-the-rink-until-I-get-it-right youngster. That's how he developed his power move and balance on blades, while getting ready for professional hockey before his breakout season of 27 goals.

"I knew the guy who ran the rink in West Seneca and he'd let me in whenever I wanted," Stempniak smiled. "That's where I worked on my skating and balance and that's where I developed a feel for the puck, handling it myself in different drills I made up."

This summer it was back to the rink for plyometrics, to make Stempniak leaner, stronger and quicker to helphim get through the bigger bodies he has to face in the NHL.

Stempniak, who was selected in the fifth round, with the 148th pick overall, in the 2003 Entry Draft, didn't get his work ethic from books. He learned it from watching his parents, Larry, who works at Quebecor World Printing, a book bindery company in Depew, just outside of Buffalo, and Carla, who works for the Buffalo postal department, the third shift that goes from 9:30 p.m. until 5:30 a.m.

"They drove to something like 33 of my 35 or 36 games at Dartmouth," Lee remembered. "When I was called up to St. Louis, they went out and bought a satellite dish so they could watch Blues games."

Lee said his parents wanted to keep up with he and his brother Jay, who was a defenseman at Division III Johnson and Wales College in Rochester, N.Y.

"It isn't always easy for mom," Stempniak continued about the Blues games. "Our home games start at 8 in Buffalo and she watches until 9 before she has to go to work. Sometimes dad will call her during the games if something big happens. Sometimes she will call home if it is an important game. Otherwise, he TiVos the games and she catches up on me when she gets home."

That was at a time when Pat LaFontaine, Dave Andreychuk, Alexander Mogilny were the Sabres' big scorers and Dominik Hasek flashed his magical goaltending skills on a nightly basis.

His first real chance to play in the NHL was against Calgary, when he lifted a shot that eluded Miikka Kiprusoff's quick glove hand to win a shootout.

"Who was that kid?" Kiprusoff asked afterward. "I thought I had him. But he waited and waited like a veteran -- and then he showed some nice hands when he pulled the puck back and lifted it over my glove."

"We knew coming into the season that he was a player that he has good NHL experience, he's a good pro," Devils coach John Hynes said. "He's got good hockey sense and skill and he's been fortunate enough to earn the right to play in some important situations -- a top six role and special teams -- and he's been very consistent and productive in those roles."

Eleven years had been a long time. Stempniak admits it's become more difficult to change teams so often, however, since his twin daughters, Reese and Lucy, were born two years ago.

"The last two years have been hard because we have kids," he said. "My daughters were in the hospital for a month when they were born and I got traded when they were five days old from Calgary to Pittsburgh."

You could feel the apprehension that Stempniak had.

"To not be with them when they were in the hospital or when they came home was hard," Stempniak continued. "And then last year I got traded to Winnipeg, they stayed in New York. So I didn't see them for two and a half months. It's a bit easier when it's just yourself or at least married without kids. You can sort of move more easily. But, it's hard to do it when you have children."

And they've got grandparents said Stempniak. "We see mom and dad more often ... now that we've got the twins."

Life in the NHL hasn't always been kind to Lee Stempniak. But he's left his mark -- as goal scorer.

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