A new trend in the new-era NHL, following the lockout of 2012, has been inviting veteran free agents to training camps on Professional Try Outs (PTOs) — mainly due to rising salaries despite the salary cap; therefore the average age on rosters is getting younger which is also synonymous with cheaper. This season the New Jersey Devils invited NHL two veterans to camp, Tyler Kennedy and Lee Stempniak, as well as a few younger players — most notably goaltender Ken Appleby who recently inked a three-year entry-level deal.
Kennedy was released from his PTO immediately following the Devils seventh and final preseason game while Stempniak was signed to a one-year deal the following day. (At press time there were a total of ten players that came to an NHL camp this September on a PTO and have earned NHL contracts; see all of the players that were on PTOs in The Hockey Writers’ tracker HERE). When he is (likely) in the lineup on opening night for New Jersey it will be the eighth NHL team that the 32-year-old West Seneca, NY native has played for.
While he’s had some decent seasons points wise, Stempniak has also played on some very bad teams with stops in Toronto, Phoenix and Calgary; but he has never matched the 52 points he had in 82 games for the St. Louis Blues in his second NHL season (2006-07). From the outside looking in there may be low expectations to start in New Jersey one would assume, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility to think that he should be able to nab 15-18 goals if he gets top-6 minutes.
Before he had signed his contract THW spoke to Lee Stempniak following the last preseason game to find out if he thought he had done enough to earn a contract and what it was like to be the captain of his college team among other topics.
The Hockey Writers: With training camp and preseason now finished how do you feel about your chances (to make the team)?
Lee Stempniak: I’m confident in the way I played; I know I can help the team and I think I can play a big role on the team. At this point the ball is sort of in their court…we’ll see what happens. At this point there’s nothing to report. I’m just waiting to see where they are coming from and then see where that leaves me.
THW: Would you say things went as you expected they would since you’ve been here as far as your performance?
LS: Yeah, I definitely have a lot of belief in myself as a player and I think I had a good year last year, and a strong finish last year. I didn’t expect to come here and not play well. I chose New Jersey over a few other teams just based on the opportunity. I got that opportunity to play and I think I made the most out of it; we’ll see what happens in the next little while.
Lee Stempniak shows that he has a nose for the net, and he can score in the playoffs:
THW: Did the proximity to your hometown factor at all into your decision to choose New Jersey over maybe another team?
LS: No not really, it was opportunity more than anything. I played for (GM) Ray (Shero), he traded for me in Pittsburgh and there was a comfort (for me) there and knowing he knows the way I play. The primary thing was just the opportunity — it was a team that finished near the bottom of the standings, there was change and there were some openings up front; so for me looking at that it was the best opportunity — to not only come in and play, but to play a big role on a team and I believe I can do that.
THW: Are you getting tired of bouncing around? This will be your eighth team if you sign here.
LS: Yeah it’s hard. But it’s part of the business. The last two years have been tough being traded at the deadline both times, that part is hard; being away from your family is hard. It’s unfortunate that it is just the way that it has played out the last couple of years (for me). Some stability would be nice.
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) September 25, 2015
THW: You got a taste of the somewhat easier travel while a member of the New York Rangers, is it a noticeable thing after playing many years in places like Arizona and Calgary?
LS: The travel aspect is nice but personally I liked playing in the West also. It doesn’t really matter where you play now; we play in every city regardless, so we have some long trips. The travel (in the East) is a bit easier but it’s not really a determining factor for me. It’s nice that it works out (that way) but I’m happy to be anywhere; there are a lot of great cities in the NHL.
THW: You were the captain of your college team with Dartmouth; what was that experience like?
LS: It was great; I had a great four years. I was recruited by a few schools, Dartmouth showed the most interest and it was a perfect fit for me. The school is great and I met some of my best friends from there also; hockey-wise I really grew as a player. I got stronger and grew off the ice. I met my wife there. I have a lot of love for Dartmouth.
THW: Your second season in the NHL (and with the Blues) you led the team in goals; what was the key to your success?
LS: I scored a lot of goals on the power play (eight of 27 total) and I think power play goals are always a big part of any success (I’ve had). The one year I got traded to Phoenix I think I had the most goals on the team there, and scored some power play goals (nine of 28 total between Toronto and Phoenix). For me shooting the puck is one of my strengths, I try to get shots when I can and use my speed to attack. At the same time you have to get to the front of the net and pay the price to get those other goals too. It’s a combination of a lot of things going right, and I think the result of playing to your strengths as well as making sure you are doing the little things right.
THW: What are your impressions of New Jersey coach John Hynes and his system in what is his first season as an NHL coach?
LS: I’m impressed, he’s very thorough, very detailed; without taking away some of the creativity in the game. There’s a structure he wants us to play with, but within that you are free to make plays. The big thing I noticed is that we have a lot of speed — it seems like when we regroup and come out of our end we try to maintain possession a lot more rather than just shooting it out; and that allows us to attack with speed. You get a lot of great chances that way with speed underneath to support the puck. We didn’t get a lot of goals tonight as a result but the opportunities were there.
Dan Rice can be reached via Twitter: @DRdiabloTHW or via Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.