<
>

Low-risk players who are delivering high-end rewards

play
Best role players in the NHL? (1:13)

Barry Melrose selects the New York Islanders' line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck as the most important role players in the league right now. (1:13)

Rosters typically take shape between the first few days of free agency and the final cuts of training camp. Whip up some line combinations and, voilĂ , you've got your team.

If only it was that easy.

"I think everybody thinks their team is all set until you lose the first few games at the start of the season," said Mike Smith, the former general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks and Winnipeg Jets.

Whether inspired by injuries, poor play or little more than a hunch, general managers are inevitably forced to get creative in restructuring their team as the season rolls along. And in a few special cases, those early-season risks have yielded unexpected rewards.

GMs have typically made these tweaks through trade. But with only one player-for-player swap so far this season, that is no longer the case.

"The cap plays a big part in that. Either certain players are making too much money or there is too much term," said Smith. "There seem to be more players picked up on waivers now than before."

Between waiver claims, professional tryout agreements and minor league call-ups, GMs can make low-risk, off-the-radar roster moves. For a few teams and players, those moves have so far paid big dividends.

StempniakLee Stempniak, New Jersey Devils: Perhaps no player epitomizes New Jersey's surprise season quite like Stempniak. The Devils signed the journeyman wing to a pro tryout the day before veterans reported to training camp. After joining his fifth team in three seasons, the tempered expectations in New Jersey worked just fine for Stempniak.

The Devils are in the thick of the Eastern Conference race for a playoff spot and Stempniak was third on the Devils in points. Most surprising has been Stempniak's help with the man advantage. Just 35 games into the season, his nine power-play points and 94:11 in power-play ice time already eclipsed his totals for all of last season, which he split between the New York Rangers and Jets.

ByronPaul Byron, Montreal Canadiens: Byron was placed on waivers by the Calgary Flames and claimed by the Canadiens the day before they opened the season. He then languished as a healthy scratch for almost a month before finally getting a shot on the Habs' fourth line. Since then, he's played in a variety of situations, including a few shifts on the team's first line alongside captain Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec.

But it's on the penalty kill where Byron has excelled. The diminutive speedster scored shorthanded in his second game of the season and entered the Christmas holiday week tied for second in the NHL with three shorties. While the Canadiens have struggled in December, Byron's three goals in the month lead the team.

JanmarkMattias Janmark, Dallas Stars: Considered a throw-in in the 2015 trade deadline deal that sent Erik Cole to the Detroit Red Wings, the 23-year-old Swede was expected to return to Europe before the season even began. But the third-round pick in 2013 defied expectations, made the team and quickly established himself as an important depth forward.

Janmark adapted quickly to the smaller North American ice surface and scored a goal on the first shot of his first NHL shift -- it was the game winner, no less. His eight goals this season have been a welcome surprise for the Stars, but the rookie has truly thrived on a line with veteran Jason Spezza, scoring four goals in December.

Craig CustanceLandon Ferraro, Boston Bruins: Ferraro hoped to enjoy his breakout season with the Red Wings. Those plans changed when the 24-year-old forward was placed on waivers after going pointless in his first 10 games of the season with Detroit. He's practically been a different player since the Bruins claimed him.

After collecting one point in 17 career games with Detroit, Ferraro provided an instant spark for the Bruins, scoring seven points in 14 games. That scoring touch earned him a series of promotions, eventually culminating in a spot on the Bruins' top line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Perhaps most telling, the Bruins are 9-1-3 since claiming Ferraro on Nov. 22.

Craig CustanceBrayden McNabb, Los Angeles Kings: McNabb wasn't exactly an unknown commodity entering the season. He even enjoyed a strong first season in Los Angeles last year while mostly playing limited minutes. But a once-vaunted Kings blue line was forced to rebuild after losing Willie Mitchell and Andrej Sekera to free agency, Slava Voynov to off-ice legal trouble, Robyn Regehr to retirement and Matt Greene to a series of injuries.

There was no indication McNabb would be a big part of that restructuring. Especially when the Buffalo Sabres draft pick was a healthy scratch on opening night. But McNabb has seen his minutes increase as the season has gone on, particularly at even strength and on the penalty kill. After earning the trust of Kings coach Darryl Sutter, McNabb earned the coveted spot beside superstar Drew Doughty on the team's top defensive pair.

Craig CustanceBrett Pesce, Carolina Hurricanes: After taking a defenseman with three of their past four first-round picks, Carolina has amassed a nice collection of young blue-line talent. Of course, the Hurricanes never really considered Pesce part of that group entering this season.

After starting the season in the American Hockey League, Pesce got an early-season call to the Hurricanes and has surpassed all expectations. The hope was Pesce could provide responsible play in his own end, but the University of New Hampshire product has also added nine points in his first 27 NHL games, which ranks fourth among rookie defensemen.