Commentary

Stempniak giving Pens a boost

Winding story has newest Penguin contributing alongside Sidney Crosby

Updated: March 19, 2014, 1:12 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Every NHL trade has its own story.

Lee Stempniak's began late on Feb. 28 in a Boston hospital, where his wife, Lindsay, gave birth to twin daughters Reese and Lucy.

The twins were born some weeks ahead of schedule, so while Lindsay remained in Boston to look after the girls with the help of family members, her husband returned to Calgary and his teammates with the Flames.

Stempniak worked out in Calgary, traveled with the team to Minnesota for a game on March 3 and flew back to Calgary with the Flames. On March 5, just after the trade deadline passed, Stempniak learned from our own Pierre LeBrun that he had been dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Instead of taking the ice at the Saddledome to take on the Ottawa Senators, Stempniak flew to the West Coast to meet his new teammates and played in games in San Jose and Anaheim before returning to Washington and finally back to his new home in Pittsburgh.

Along the way, he was installed, at least temporarily, as the right winger with a guy named Sidney Crosby.

"It's been a pretty crazy couple of weeks," Stempniak told ESPN.com this week. "But I couldn't be happier."

Not that all of this took the veteran winger by surprise. With the Flames out of playoff contention and his contract up at the end of the season, Stempniak knew he might be trade fodder. Still, it's hard to imagine that whatever mental preparations the former Dartmouth standout might have made could have prepared him for what actually transpired.

[+] EnlargeLee Stempniak
Len Redkoles/NHLI/Getty ImagesLee Stempniak can do it all for a Pittsburgh team decimated by injury.
First, the girls are in good health and are being kept in the hospital until they get a little bigger.

"It's amazing. We're really excited," said Stempniak, who gets regular updates on the couple's first children via email and video.

"They're doing very well," he said. "It sort of puts things in perspective how crazy things have been over the past couple of weeks."

Second, when you go from a team buried in the standings to getting a chance for your first playoff action since 2011 (when Stempniak was with Phoenix), well, that's a powerful incentive to make good on the opportunity.

"To come to a team like Pittsburgh, where they're at in the standings, the kinds of players they have, their tradition of winning," Stempniak said, "for me, I was really happy."

As much as Stempniak enjoyed playing for Bob Hartley in Calgary, the move to Pittsburgh is a great chance to show potential suitors in the free-agency market that he can play with the big boys. Guys like Crosby.

"I'm getting more comfortable every game," Stempniak said.

Initially, Stempniak found himself trying to give Crosby the puck all the time. Now he is moving his feet more, hanging on to the puck more, and it began paying off with a goal and two assists in Tuesday's 5-1 win over the Dallas Stars.

The biggest lesson he's learned playing alongside the runaway NHL scoring leader? Be ready. All the time.

"He thinks the game differently than anyone I've ever played with," Stempniak said.

Longtime broadcast analyst and two-time Stanley Cup winner Bob Errey feels the veteran winger is a good option for Crosby, given that Stempniak is a right-handed shot.

In looking for a replacement for Pascal Dupuis, who is out for the season with a knee injury, it's not so much doing extraordinary things to enhance the unit that also includes Chris Kunitz but not detracting from it, Errey said.

"He's obviously the guy that I think fits that bill," Errey told ESPN.com.

Stempniak's arrival comes at a time when the Penguins are in a state of flux personnel-wise. The Penguins were in serious discussion with Vancouver for center Ryan Kesler, but Kesler remained with the Canucks. Meanwhile, higher-profile forwards like Thomas Vanek, Matt Moulson and Marian Gaborik ended up elsewhere, making Stempniak's addition a somewhat under-the-radar move for a Penguins team that is almost always active at the deadline.

That's just what GM Ray Shero had in mind. He has known Stempniak for a long time and likes his versatility. Stempniak skates well, shoots well, is hard to knock off the puck, can play on either power-play unit and can kill penalties if called upon, Shero said in an interview this week.

"He's strong on the puck. He's strong on his skates," Shero said. "He's found some chemistry with Sid."

A year ago, the Pens made several significant moves at the deadline, adding Douglas Murray, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen and Stempniak's former teammate Jarome Iginla. Those players were all productive heading into the playoffs, but the season ended on a disappointing note when the Penguins were swept by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals.

This year, the Penguins are the runaway leaders in man-games lost to injury (413) heading into Wednesday and are working out a different set of lineup issues as they prepare for the playoffs. They were without Paul Martin and Kris Letang on the blue line in back-to-back losses to Philadelphia last weekend and were missing Dupuis, Kunitz, Beau Bennett and James Neal up front.

Letang and Dupuis are gone long term, though Letang, who suffered a stroke less than two months ago, has been cleared to practice. Martin is expected to be fully recovered from a hand injury and ready for the playoffs, and both Kunitz and Neal are close to returning. Bennett may spend some time in Wilkes-Barre getting back in NHL shape before rejoining the big club.

All of this means coach Dan Bylsma has his hands full getting a read on what his playoff lineup might look like. It also means, crazy or not, the arrival of the low-key Stempniak just might be exactly the tonic for a banged-up team still eyeing a championship.

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.