PHILADELPHIA -- Lee Stempniak started the month of October hoping to land at least a one-year contract from the New Jersey Devils. He'll likely finish it as a valuable contributor on New Jersey's first line with Adam Henrique and Mike Cammalleri.
Stempniak has seven points on two goals and five assists through 10 games going into the Devils game against the New York Islanders at Prudential Center on Saturday. He's third on the Devils in scoring and has contributed to New Jersey's better-than-expected 5-4-1 start to the season.
He came to New Jersey on a professional tryout contract on Sept. 16 and signed a one-year, $850,000 contract on Oct. 3. Stempniak said he had offers from other teams to sign a PTO, but he chose the Devils because of a calculated gamble.
"I chose New Jersey because I felt it was a team I could contribute on and play a big role," Stempniak said. "I had a lot of belief in myself as a player. It wasn't that I couldn't play. I felt I had a pretty good year last year and a strong finish, and that never wavered. For me it was finding the right fit and the right opportunity. Coming here, it's been a really good fit so far."
Stempniak said the key for him has been the way his line has been able to control the puck and avoid getting into a game of trading chances.
"We're generating second and third chances off the forecheck and off the cycle," Stempniak said.
The stats bear that out.
Henrique (54.26), Cammalleri (53.88) and Stempniak (52.17) rank first, second and fourth, respectively, among New Jersey's forwards in shot attempts percentage, which is the most telling stat for puck possession available.
"Adam and Mike are very smart players, their work ethic has really increased from really the first three games, and Lee is very reliable," Devils coach John Hynes said. "He's such a diverse player where he can play with highly intelligent and skilled players and be able to make plays, but his work ethic and his consistency doesn't change. That's what he brings on the wing there. Consistently, he makes good smart plays, he helps those guys, but he also brings that hard, consistent element to puck recovery, puck battles and defensive play. It's nice that those guys have found some chemistry and I think that Lee is a big part of that."
It's not surprising to Hynes that Stempniak is contributing. That's why the Devils signed him. They figured he would be able to give them offensive production in lieu of not having another high-end, dynamic forward to play on the right wing of their top line.
Stempniak finished last season with 10 points in 18 games with the Winnipeg Jets after getting traded by the New York Rangers. He had 11 points in 21 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins after getting traded there late in the 2013-14 season. He entered the season with 369 points in 708 career NHL games.
"When you really break him down as a player, he has good attributes," Hynes said. "He has offensive playmaking ability and hockey sense. It's just that in this situation he might be getting more of an opportunity on our team than he has in the past."
Stempniak said the worst part of not having a contract during the summer was the uncertainty, not knowing where he would be going this season with his young family, which includes his wife and 20-month old twin daughters.
"If you're a single guy, it's not that hard," he said. "If you're married it's a little bit hard. If you have kids it's really hard. That part of it is the only difference. I trained the same way all summer, knew I was going to go to training camp somewhere, I just didn't know where. So the uncertainty is hard. It wasn't doubting that I could play or that I could help a team, it was just waiting for the opportunity to prove that."
Being that the Devils are a team in transition, without a glut of high-end forwards, Stempniak figured he'd get an opportunity to be in a scoring role if he could make the team. He said it helped that he had a prior relationship with general manager Ray Shero, who traded for Stempniak when he was the GM in Pittsburgh.
"Out of all the options there were different things being discussed, and I felt coming to a tryout in New Jersey was the best opportunity," Stempniak said. "It was a team with new coaches, a team that had been one of the worst teams in the League last year so it was looking to make changes, and there was opportunity. That's what made New Jersey the most appealing."