2010 NHL Free Agency: What about ... Lee Stempniak?
By James O'Brien
At this point in free agency, the focus shifts from the gems to flawed guys who can still bring some skill to the table. So, going forward, we'll spotlight individual players who are flying under the radar.
Previous Entries: Slava Kozlov, Alex Frolov, Willie Mitchell
Today's entry: Lee Stempniak
Name: Lee Stempniak
Height: 6-0 Weight: 195
Strengths: Speed, special teams, goal scoring
Weaknesses: Consistency, play without the puck
Who is Lee Stempniak, really?
At 27-years-old, you'd think the quick winger would have shown his true self at this point, but I'm not so sure.
Logic says that he's just another mediocre player who caught lightning in a bottle for a limited time. His career stats are nothing short of middling; he averages .56 points per game in his career, Stempniak's best plus/minus is 0 and he topped off at 52 points during the 06-07 season. It's hard not to yawn at such pedestrian numbers.
Still, it's difficult to ignore just how magical that post-trade-deadline run was. Once he jumped on the bandwagon with the Phoenix Coyotes, Stempniak transformed himself into a red-hot performer. His goal scoring, in particular, was the thing of genius: 14 of his 18 points in 18 regular season games with the Yotes were goals. Sure, he went ice cold in crunch time (0 goals, two assists in seven playoff games against Detroit), but still. That was an incredible run.
The biggest question, to me, is what the largest hold-up is. Are general managers worried that Stempniak is just a flash-in-the-pan or is he just another victim of the Eternal Ilya Kovalchuk Holding Pattern? That much is unclear, but if Matt Cullen can garner a $3.5 million per year cap hit then I wouldn't be surprised to see a team roll the dice on Stempniak this summer.
For some reason, one name that keeps popping into my head is Edmonton Oilers' forward Fernando Pisani. It's not a completely fair comparison; Stempniak has actually had two nice seasons (28 goals in 09-10 and 27 in 06-07) while Pisani scored a few timely goals during the Oilers' unexpected run to the Stanley Cup finals. Far-too-convenient timing isn't the only reason I think of the two players, though; Stempniak's risk factor increases when you consider how one-dimensional he can be. Neither player will not be much of an asset if they're not scoring for you. (After all, Stempniak killed penalties for an average of three seconds per game in the Red Wings series.)
One thing he won't be able to do is shoot the lights out like he did in Phoenix. According to hockey-reference.com, Stempniak's shooting percentage was a staggering 29.2 percent in those 18 games with the Coyotes. His career shooting percentage is 11.8, so it's obvious that he was extraordinarily lucky.
Now, that being said, most reasonable GMs probably won't be crazy enough to expect a point-per-game player. If that general manager instead snags Stempniak for a reasonable price and expects 15-20 goals, he could be very happy with what he gets. It's been feast or famine in his career; he scored 14 goals twice and 13, 27 and 28 goals once in his five seasons. So perhaps the optimistic (yet even-keeled) approach is to hope that the truth is somewhere in between.
For a player as hot-and-cold as him, a one-year deal might be the perfect thing for both Stempniak and his prospective team. The team could give him a nice deal that reduces their long-term risk while Stempniak would gain an opportunity to prove he can consistently score in the 20-goal range. Either way, his free agent situation is unusual, to say the least, so stick with PHT as the puzzle pieces begin to fall into place this month.