"He finished strong last year with Winnipeg and is really good in all three zones. He's very reliable and a very good penalty killer. He's got good hockey sense and can be trusted defensively," Shero said. "Knowing him before, I knew he didn't want to just make a team but wanted to play on a team that he could have an impact. I thought this might be a good fit for both of us."
After ten NHL seasons, Stempniak was in a very unusual position. He was without a contract to start the season for the first time in his career - a career that included seven teams and four trades.
"It was definitely a different situation for me not having a contract coming in," said the 32-year-old winger. "But I've been a person that's always had to have a really good training camp. I've never been a player that's just been given a spot or given a role and, even then, you're never really satisfied to just be on the team and given a contract. You want to take on a bigger role and you want to play more, so I need to be someone that has a good training camp and trains hard and does well."
While there were other teams interested in offering him a tryout, Stempniak chose to show that he still had it with the Devils.
"Ray traded for me when I played with Pittsburgh and I knew he knew me as a person and as a player and that was comforting," explained the Dartmouth graduate. "Plus, the situation the Devils were in - new coaches, new general manager, a team that didn't do very well last year.
There was a lot of change and I knew there was opportunity here and I had a lot of confidence in myself, not that I could just make the team or play a little bit, but that I could play a big role on the team and that's what made New Jersey especially appealing."
When he arrived in Newark in September, it was business as usual even without the guarantee of a contract.
"In all honesty, it wasn't any different than last year going to the Rangers on a one year deal. You're with a new coach and new teammates and you want to go out there and earn their respect and earn their confidence and I felt the exact same way here," Stempniak explained. "It was probably a good mentality to have without putting too much pressure on yourself. The uncertainty was definitely a little unknown to me, but it didn't really change the way I prepared."
While his pre-season stats (1 goal, 1 assist) were nothing to write home about, Stempniak's value has never been quantified by numbers and he showed that he was exactly what Shero and head coach John Hynes were looking for and signed a one-year deal on October 3rd.
"We knew we were going to get a guy who's been in the league and we knew he was going to add to our culture just because of his professionalism and the type of guy that he is - just a high character guy who's had to work for everything in the game," said Hynes. "The second thing is that he's just a really smart player and he can play up and down your lineup.
He's a jack of all trades and he's a real valuable guy to the team because he can play in so many different roles.
"The consistency in which he's been able to play with has been great," Hynes continued. "Basically, every game he's found a way to be a factor whether it's offensively or defensively and sometimes that's difficult for guys to do, particularly with the amount of ice time he's been able to get. We knew he could do it, but I think we're pleasantly surprised with the more you give him, the more he continues to get better and prove that he deserves more and that's nice to work with."
Having found almost instant chemistry with Mike Cammalleri and Adam Henrique on the Devils' top line, Stempniak has 5 goals, 14 assists and
19 points in 25 games and is on pace for his best offensive season yet.
"He's been awesome. He does all the little things right and prepares the right way. He gets in the corners and does the dirty work. He plays hard and gets physical. Doing all the little things sometimes gets overlooked, but we definitely appreciate it," Henrique said. "We seem to click and play well and have built some chemistry over the past two months. It's been fun. We're making plays and having success and scoring goals."
"He's a cerebral player," said Cammalleri. "Plays the game hard and well, can't say enough about his game on the ice. He's just a guy who you can count on to be very responsible in all three zones. He's skating really well this year and playing really well."
"Skating is a big thing for me. I would like to use my speed to get in on the forecheck and off the rush and I like to use my shot. I think I have a pretty good shot, whether it's scoring or creating secondary chances with my shot. Those are two things I always try to play to," Stempniak explained. "I think I've improved as a two-way player and just having hockey smarts. The more you play the more things you see and I think you just instinctively know where to go at certain times on the ice. I try to bring those three things every night and play within the structure of the team, but trust your instincts out there and make plays when they're available."
"He has a very good combination of things," said the first year NHL coach. "He's very hockey smart and makes good reads and he understands the system well. There's not a lot of reaction to him, he's just reading the play a lot and he has good offensive instincts and I think when you combine those two things, that's why he's been able to be a productive player on both sides of the puck."
While things are clicking on the ice, they're also clicking for Stempniak off the ice and in the locker room.
"I get to enjoy him and Cammy going back and forth non-stop. They're friends from Calgary and have a lot of inside jokes that I don't know about yet," Henrique said with a laugh. "He's funnyŠa little dry sometimes, but it keeps things light around the room. Cammy gives him crickets a lot and ices him quite a bit. I enjoy hearing them go back and forth and get on each other. We can't let Cammy get too high and Stempy does a great job bringing him back down to earth sometimes."
"Lee thinks he's really funny in the locker room, but he's really not that funny. He's one of those guys," Cammalleri explained. "Some times we feel bad for him and give him a token laugh because you don't want to hurt his confidence too much. He tries really hard to be funny, so for every five or six jokes we laugh at one and that's just because we feel bad for him most of the time."
"In all seriousness though, he's really established himself as one of our leaders both on the ice and in the room. He's been awesome to have here," Henrique added.
And that's just what Hynes and Shero were hoping Stempniak could bring to the team when training camp started.
"We're trying to build a culture here of strong work ethic and accountability and guys that have a lot of character and pride and he has those things and he's proven that in the way he practices every day and his professionalism and his presence around the rink," said Hynes.
"A lot of players start the season on a tryout, but he proved his worth and put his money where his mouth was. I know he had other offers and he saw a potential fit here and he's been exactly what we had hoped for," Shero said.
"When you have a hole in your line up that you're trying to fill and have a list of available candidates and you bring in a guy on a tryout, you don't really know what to expect, but you're certainly hoping for big things," Shero continued. "Did I expect him to play on our top line and on the power play and playing in the last minute of the game, I can't say that I did, but I also can't say I'm surprised. I think it's been a really good fit for him and it's certainly been a good fit for us."
A New Jersey native, who grew up loving hockey, Julie Robenhymer covers the NHL, NCAA and various international tournaments. Follow her on Twitter at @JulieRobenhymer.
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