Lee Stempniak prides himself on being a student of the game, the kind of player who enjoys watching video, talking hockey and learning from experience. As training camp neared and the West Seneca native still didn’t have an NHL contract, he studied which team would allow him to make impact during his tryout.
He made the right choice with the New Jersey Devils.
The 32-year-old parlayed a training camp invite into a one-year contract, and he’s certainly doing enough to earn another one. Stempniak scored the opening goal during Tuesday night’s 2-0 victory over the Sabres. He’s tied for second on New Jersey’s scoring list with 24 points in 31 games.
“You always want to be signed, but at the end of the day I was just looking for the best fit, not so much a place where you just make the team,” Stempniak said in First Niagara Center. “I had a lot of confidence in myself as a player. I felt last year I had a strong year and a really good finish in Winnipeg.
“It’s finding a spot where you can make an impact and play a big role.”
The 32-year-old has an ideal role. He’s the right winger on the Devils’ top line, skating alongside center Mike Cammalleri and left wing Adam Henrique. In the opening 31 games, the trio has combined for 32 goals, 47 assists and 79 points, including eight goals and 16 assists for Stempniak.
The St. Francis High School graduate picked the Devils for his tryout for a pair of reasons. New Jersey’s new general manager, Ray Shero, liked Stempniak enough to trade for him while in Pittsburgh in 2014. Stempniak also knew that the new coach, John Hynes, wouldn’t have any holdover favorites robbing a roster spot.
“Everyone started on equal footing,” Stempniak said. “For me it was a great opportunity.”
The 11th-year veteran found himself as part of the overlooked middle class during the summer free-agency period. Most teams are spending big on stars and filling out their roster with lower-paid younger players, leaving solid vets like Stempniak on the bubble.
“He’s found ways to be able to stay in the league, which is very difficult for guys like him,” Hynes said. “We knew coming in he’s a good player. He has good hockey intelligence. He’s a very good competitor, and he’s got a high skill set.
“He’s just a good player that wound up getting a good opportunity here, and good on him for cashing in on it.”
Stempniak, who is playing for his eighth team after breaking in with St. Louis in 2005, hopes he’s found a long-term home.
“We’re in a really good spot,” said Stempniak, who welcomed twin girls to the family 21 months ago. “It’s a good fit. It’d be nice to stick around longer.”
For the second time in three days, Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner had a productive on-ice workout. The team hopes he can ramp it up even more before next week’s Christmas break.
Lehner repeatedly went from a standing position to his knees and back up again in an attempt to strengthen the ankle he sprained during the season opener Oct. 8.
“He did a good number of reps going into his butterfly on the ice two days ago and again today he had those reps,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “There is always with a high-ankle sprain dealing with some discomfort. That’s why it’s a long and arduous comeback from that. As a goalie going into that position an awful lot, it strains it every time you do that.
“We’re going to have a five-day break, so hopefully we’re going to see it go to another level here before the break and then a good couple days at the break of rest, and then come back after the break and hopefully we can progress from there.”
While Lehner is not close to returning to practice, Bylsma said forward Tyler Ennis (upper body) could skate with the team this week. Defenseman Mark Pysyk (bone bruise) remains week-to-week.
Ville Leino is out of work again. The former Sabres winger, who was bought out of his $27 million contract in 2014 after a season with no goals, has had his Kontinental Hockey League contract terminated by Moscow Dynamo. He had 12 points in 39 games.
The Sabres are in the midst of 10 games in 19 days. Bylsma offers a break when possible, including Tuesday when he made the morning skate optional.
Despite playing the most minutes of any forward in the NHL, center Ryan O’Reilly took the ice. He was also the last one off.
“I come to the rink. I’d rather do something and sweat,” he said. “I hate just sitting around.”