This summer, Ray Whitney was brought to Phoenix to replace Stempniak who, it was all but conceded, was headed elsewhere for a lucrative contract after scoring 14 of his 28 goals during a magical six-week stint in Arizona.
"I didn't think we had any chance to resign him," said Phoenix general manger Don Maloney, still bound by an organizational budget set by the NHL, which owns the club. "Quite frankly, we expected the phone to ring and be told where he was headed next."
But suddenly, the market changed and the tables turned. The player Stempniak replaced (Upshall) and the guy who was supposed to replace him (Whitney) wound up his teammates in Phoenix -- and the trio helps to give the Coyotes its deepest collection of forwards in a decade and legitimate hope that last season's reversal from punching bag to playoff team won't be a one-year wonder.
Stempniak is a capable goal scorer, as his 27-goal sophomore season in St. Louis and run of 14 goals in 18 games down the stretch last spring attest. But there have also been enough dry spells -- combined with a perceived lack of intensity -- that he didn't attract a big-money offer as a free agent, leaving a two-year, $3.5 million offer to return to Phoenix in August as the best option.
And after a career of new cities and new starts, the feeling of comfort and stability suits Stempniak, who was shooting about nine percent in Toronto before converting 14 of 43 shots as a Coyote. Not only does he return to a team he helped push toward a franchise-record 107 points last season, he is back with linemates Taylor Pyatt and Vernon Fiddler, where he is seen as the scoring option and given the ability to do what he does best -- finding holes in the defense and shooting the puck.
Stempniak cooled off considerably in the playoffs, producing just 2 assists in seven playoff games against Detroit. A shoulder injury that sidelined Shane Doan allowed Detroit to shift its defensive focus to Stempniak, and it affected his production. But with Doan back and Whitney and Upshall joining Wojtek Wolski and Radim Vrbata on the wings, keying on Stempniak won't be as easy.
"I thought even though he didn't score in the playoffs, his game was the same," Maloney said. "He was going in the hard areas, shooting the puck quick ... Detroit played him tough and his stick ran a little cold.
"But Lee is a good hockey player. On a bad year he's going to get us 20 goals, on a good year he could get us 40. He's in great shape, he works hard in camp, we're familiar and he's comfortable playing with Pyatt and Fiddler. I have no doubt he'll be productive and have a great season for us. I think things are structured for him to have a big year."
Stempniak said he was surprised he didn't get a bigger, better offer early in free agency, but he's ready to put a long, curious summer behind him.
"There are still a lot of guys out there without contracts, so in the end I'm back with a team I like and playing in a great fit for me," he said. "To play an important role on a good team and have a chance to contribute was exciting and I can't wait to be part of a whole season here."
The Coyotes got Stempniak in a steal, picking him up from Toronto for two late draft picks and a minor league defenseman. Now they are hoping they have gotten a bargain again.
"For a 28-goal scorer, generally you're starting (at $3 million a year) and going from there," Maloney said. "To be honest, we were beneficiaries but I don't think Lee will be using food stamps anytime soon. I think he's ready to play hockey and every indication in training camp is he's ready to go."