By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Three years ago, the Boston Bruins could have added Lee Stempniak for close to nothing.
Stempniak, who has called Boston home since he graduated college, was part of a group that spent their summers skating with several members of the Bruins. He certainly fit a need for the Bruins back then, too, after the team failed to make the playoffs in 2015. They instead watched him join the Devils on a professional tryout, and Stempniak forced his way into an affordable contract before the B’s ultimately dealt two draft picks (a second and fourth-round selection) to add him at the 2016 trade deadline.
Now, the 35-year-old is back with the Bruins (this time on a professional tryout), and is currently making it almost impossible for the Bruins to let him slip through their fingers for the third time in three years.
Making his third appearance of the preseason in Monday’s win over the Philadelphia Flyers, Stempniak factored in on three of Boston’s four goals, and finished his night with the game-winning goal and two primary helpers. And including his two-assist effort against the Red Wings over the weekend, the versatile Stempniak’s totaled a goal and five points in his last six periods of hockey.
No matter the plethora of kids the B’s either have or expect to have contribute to their NHL squad this year, that improving production is becoming increasingly tougher to walk away from, and they know it.
“He could,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said when asked if Stempniak has a chance to make the Bruins this fall. “He’s come in here and done what we’ve asked him to do which is make plays, have composure, make good decisions with the puck, and still be a good 200-foot player so he’s done that.”
It’s worth noting that Stempniak, who recorded three goals and 10 points in 19 post-deadline games with the Bruins in 2016, never wanted to leave the Bruins. He openly wanted to stay with the Bruins, but the Bruins wanted to go through a ‘culture change’ after their second straight collapse out of the postseason picture, and moving on from somebody like Stempniak was beyond easy. (You could argue that that was a mistake, as the Bruins once again spent assets on a veteran scorer at the deadline that year in Drew Stafford while Stempniak posted a solid 16-goal, 40-point campaign with the Hurricanes.)
And with Anders Bjork (shoulder surgery) still on the shelf and yet to make a preseason appearance, as well as Cassidy’s open reluctance to sit a younger player as the club’s 13th or 14th forward, there certainly seems to be a spot there for Stempniak to grab between now and Oct. 3.
Stempniak, whose cost is favorably low after an injury-plagued 2017-18 season with the Hurricanes, also has the benefit of being a player that’s regularly played on both the left and right side throughout his career. Cassidy and the Bruins love such talents, especially given obvious preferences when it comes to the sides Bjork, Danton Heinen, and Ryan Donato will play. And following offseason departures of flexible forwards such as Brian Gionta, Riley Nash, Rick Nash, Tim Schaller, and Tommy Wingels.
The veteran of over 900 NHL games is certainly hip to this advantage in his pursuit of an NHL contract.
“I feel like for me some of my strengths are versatility; I can play up and down the lineup on both wings and that’s something I try to showcase,” Stempniak offered after Monday’s victory. “Obviously last year was a tough year with injuries, but other than that I’ve been pretty consistent with how I’ve played and put up points, so for me I think it’s showing I can still skate, still play, and keep up with the pace of the game and I think I did that tonight and what I’ve been doing for camp.”
It also helps that Stempniak has been through almost everything one can in the NHL, and that the potentially too-young Bruins (especially on their third line) could be in a situation where they’re spending for veteran help should Player X, Y, and Z prove unready for an obviously win-now team.
Perhaps getting ahead of that without losing anything ‘cept cap space is in the B’s best interest.
“We’ve seen some young mistakes out of our young players that we’re going to allow them to play through, but at the same token we have to address what’s best for the club,” Cassidy remarked. “Is it youth or a proven guy? It’s been youth around here because they bounce back.
“So, we’ll see in the next couple of weeks.”
Or in the next couple of 30-game segments if and when they’re looking for a player like Stempniak.
Ty Anderson is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Ty? Follow him on Twitter @_TyAnderson.