Last year, July 1 came and went for Lee Stempniak.
It wasn’t until September that the veteran forward landed a professional tryout with the New Jersey Devils. In early October, he signed a one-year contract.
“It was a tough summer,” Stempniak said in a Friday evening phone interview. “I sort of just approached it the same way I do every training camp. You have to go out, earn your role, earn the coach’s trust and earn your spot on the team.”
What a difference a year – and a good one, at that – makes.
On Friday, mere hours after the free agent market opened, Stempniak signed a two-year, $5 million contract with the Carolina Hurricanes.
“Carolina was one of the teams we identified right away as being a good fit where I could play and be an important player,” Stempniak said in a Friday evening phone interview. “I’m very excited about joining Carolina with the young players they have.”
“Guys we looked at in conversations with our coaches, this is a guy we felt fit in to the style we’re playing and what we’re looking for,” said Executive Vice President and General Manager Ron Francis. “Veteran leadership. By all reports, a real good guy. I know he’s played for a lot of teams, but everyone speaks extremely highly of this guy. I know Ricky Olczyk is happy because he’s an Ivy Leaguer. We think he’s a good addition to our locker room and our team.”
On the night before Devils’ training camp opened last September, Stempniak came aboard on a tryout, playing for a contract in the NHL.
“It really forced me to believe in myself as a player and for the first time, sort of bet on myself as a player,” he said. “I had a few different options and ultimately chose New Jersey as a spot where I could not just make the team but play a big role on the team. It worked out great for me, and I think it worked out well for New Jersey.”
Stempniak went on to put up his best numbers since 2006-07, his second season in the NHL. He posted 51 points (19g, 32a) and was the Devils leading scorer with 41 points before they flipped him for two of Boston’s draft picks at the trade deadline.
The veteran forward says his success in the 2015-16 campaign was twofold. One reason was simply being put in a position to succeed.
“I was able to go there, earn a big role on the team and play with some good players,” he said. “A lot of times that helps a lot in terms of production in the NHL.”
The other was his reformed offseason training. He worked out with Matt Nichol, the creator of BioSteel and the strength and conditioning coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs during Stempniak’s time there.
“We just focused a little bit more on getting completely healthy, moving well and being balanced,” he explained. “Once that happened, I was able to train hard. It just felt like it had a huge carryover in how I was skating. I felt like I was skating better and moving well, and I felt more fluid on the ice.”
He’s continued that training regimen into this summer and, despite the new contract, won’t take a different approach to training camp.
“I’ve never been somewhere where I could just have a sub-par training camp and be fine,” Stempniak said. “I’m very serious about my offseason training. From that perspective, nothing has really changed.”
During our phone conversation, Stempniak had to pause one of his answers while he handled his six-week old son. He and his wife, Lindsay, also have twin daughters who are just over two years old. At 33 years old with a burgeoning family, the stability of a two-year contract is reassuring, but Stempniak, who has been a trade deadline casualty in each of the last three seasons, knows that can also be fleeting.
“The security is definitely nice. As a person, as a family and as a player, you always appreciate that. For me I appreciate the confidence that Carolina has in me as a player, so that’s nice,” he said. “But the reality is that anything can happen. I’ve been traded a number of times. You never really know what’s around the corner in the NHL.”
Raleigh will mark Stempniak’s 10th stop in a career that began after the 2004-05 work stoppage with the St. Louis Blues. He has since played in 790 regular-season games and accumulated 420 points (184g, 236a).
“There are a lot of things you get to experience when you play with different people, different personalities and different coaches,” he said. “I think I’ve learned a lot of things from a lot of different coaches, different nuances on how they understand the game and what they appreciate. It has sort of forced me as a player to be adaptable.”
I asked Stempniak what excited him most about joining the Hurricanes on the ice in the fall. His response: potential.
“They’ve got some great, young defensemen and some very good, young offensive players. I think you’re going to see them take a big step each of the next couple of seasons,” he said. “You want to be with a team like that that’s on the rise. You win in the NHL with young players when they grow and carry the team. That’s very exciting to be a part of.”
is the Web Producer for the Carolina Hurricanes.Email