When Lee Stempniak signed his professional try-out contract with the Devils, few expected him to be a huge impact player. Many expected him to just trundle along, adding a point every two or three games, playing third-line minutes, and then get traded at the deadline for a draft pick. However, he’s been a very pleasant surprise, playing on the top line with Michael Cammalleri and Adam Henrique, and has 14 goals and 22 assists, making him second on the team in points.
This brings us to a question that will be asked over and over for the next month. What do we do with him at the trade deadline?
There are a few factors to keep in mind before we answer this question. The first factor is his age. At 32 years old, he’s not considered an asset toward the future. He’s a veteran who knows his place on the team, and won’t step in and change the environment and chemistry of a locker room. That brings us to the next factor, his contract. With his salary at $850,000, he’s one of the best bang-for-the-buck contracts in terms of points per dollar spent. With that low salary, a contending team with little to no cap space can afford to bring on that contract, and with that gain a very reliable winger who can contribute no matter where he is. That leads to the final category we’ll touch on, his performance. A good example of what he brings to the table can be seen in this recent goal against the Ottawa Senators:
As you can see, he’s very positionally sound, has plenty of speed to burn, and has great hands to finish off the goal in close quarters. He also is responsible defensively, provides leadership, and doesn’t take shifts off.
Now that we know a bit more about what he brings to the table, let’s take a look at the situation we are presented with. As of today, the Devils are holding on to the second Wild Card spot. They are two points in front of the Penguins, who have 2 games played less than New Jersey, and three points ahead of the Canadiens, Senators, and Hurricanes. They are also 1 point behind the Islanders for 3rd place in the Metropolitan. In short, they are right in the thick of things. According to sportsclubstats.com, the Devils currently have a 50.1% chance of making it to the playoffs. What that tells us, is that anything can happen.
So now to figure out what to do at the trade deadline. GM Ray Shero has explained that he won’t be trading for any rental players to make a playoff push this year, a decision widely accepted as a good idea. With the Devils still technically in a rebuild, there’s no point in mortgaging the future for a playoff run that might not happen. With the team in the playoff mix, it would make sense to keep what they have, and not change the team dynamic. However, with the playoffs not guaranteed, and they are far from a guarantee, would it make sense to trade a player we wouldn’t keep after this year, and get back a draft pick or prospect?
This gives us our predicament. Lee Stempniak isn’t under contract next season, and if he would be, he’d be due for a considerable raise. We’ve mentioned before how he’s second on the team in points. However, he’s 32, and this is by far his best season of his career. Look at his career numbers. He’s on pace for 22 goals and 62 points, which would be a career high in points by 10. Also, his role on this Devils team is far from what his role would be with any other team, because of the Devils’ forward depth being where it is. On top of that, the return for him would probably be a late second round pick. While that can pan out, (notable second round picks for the Devils include Sergei Brylin, Jay Pandolfo, and some guy named Elias, just to name a few) it’s more likely that they flame out before they make the big show.
It’s a very tough call to make. There are tons of pros and tons of cons to trading Lee Stempniak, especially to a rival within the division/wild card race. Also, according to a recent piece on Fire and Ice by Tom Gulitti, Stempniak seems to be really enjoying his time in New Jersey.
My opinion is that they should at the very least hold on to him, unless they are absolutely blown away by an offer. He’s playing top line minutes for the team, being very productive, and has created a great chemistry with Cammalleri and Henrique. While he has great trade value, he’s more valuable to us. Unless another team proves he’s worth more to them than he is to us by making us an offer we can’t refuse, he should stick around and see if this group can actually make a playoff run.