There are many ways to describe Lee Stempniak's hockey career. Nomadic. Journeyman. Itinerant.
In 12 seasons in the NHL, the forward has played for 10 teams. That's quite a journey. But it's also a point of pride for Stempniak, the West Seneca native who now lines up against his hometown team as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Stempniak recorded his 10th assist, setting up the Hurricane's second goal in a 3-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres in KeyBank Center Thursday night.
It takes work, and cultivating confidence, to stay in the NHL for 12 seasons regardless of how many teams end up on the resume.
Perhaps his biggest challenge came last season, when he was without a team and was invited to the New Jersey Devils training camp. He made the team, was traded to Boston late in season, and finished with 19 goals -- the most he scored since tallying 14 with the Calgary Flames in 2011-12.
"There are people who get a couple chances and sort of wash out of the league where I feel like I’ve been able to contribute everywhere I’ve played," Stempniak said. "Last year I went on a tryout to New Jersey and I ended up having one of the best years of my career. That really forced me to take ownership of my confidence. That’s something that’s never come extremely easy for me. I think having that challenge forced me to be more confident and have a mature approach."
Finding ways to fit in with different teams and new teammates isn't the difficult part of his wandering NHL career which went from St. Louis to Toronto, Phoenix, Calgary, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, Winnipeg, New Jersey, Boston and now Carolina. The challenging part comes when his family has to move over and over again.
"It’s something I take pride in where I can go and play with different people on different types of teams, playing different situations and just be someone who can contribute to wins," Stempniak said. "The off-ice stuff with your family is difficult. I’ve got three children now. They’re young. They’re not in quite school yet. My wife has lived all over North America. That’s the part that’s hard. It’s easy when you show up to the rink or the locker room. But when your family is effected, that’s a little more difficult."
Stempniak played four years at Dartmouth. He was a fifth-round draft pick of St. Louis in 2003 and started his NHL career with the Blues where he learned from players like Keith Tkachuck, Doug Weight and Paul Kariya. He took those lessons into his role now as an NHL veteran on a young Carolina team.
"Those were guys who really looked out for me and just made sure I was doing things the right way, taught me a lot about the game but were very good people to me off the ice," Stempniak said. "That’s the thing I’ve tried to carry forward. A lot of times coaches do the coaching but it’s a tough business. Sometimes guys need a pat on the back or encouragement. I think for the most part we’ve got a great group. It’s very inclusive. There’s no cliques. It’s very welcoming so a lot of that is just trying to foster that."
Stempniak has been playing with Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, and has found chemistry with the pair of young Finnish players, something Hurricanes' coach Bill Peters welcomes.
"He’s got really good hockey sense," Peters said of Stempniak. "He’s a finisher by trade. The other two look to make plays. Two young guys with an older guy, he can help them on the bench, talk to them and be a mentor in that regard. But he’s a real good player. I like him no matter where he plays but now he’s found a comfort level with those two guys playing in offensive situations."
There was one positive for the Sabres in the loss on Thursday: the penalty kill.
The Sabres killed off four Carolina power plays in the second period when the Hurricanes poured seven shots on goaltender Robin Lehner. He made 13 saves total saves in the period to keep the Sabres in the game, trailing 2-0.
"You come out flat like that against a skilled team like this, we came out 2-0 could have been little more," said Lehner, who posted a .939 save percentage in the game, topping the .920 mark for the third consecutive game. "Now killing, we have a good penalty kill in the second but they keep coming. They keep getting some chances and we’re hanging in there. ... We went out on the penalty kill and did a good job and that's about the only bright spot today."
The penalty kill kept them in the game, but also prevented the Sabres from creating opportunities of their own in the second.
"It took away any chance we had of coming back in the game at that point," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "We had to kill off a succession of penalties there. I thought our penalty killers did a great job and kind of still gave us a chance to be in the game. But it took away from the opportunity. We came on in the third but it's too little too late at that point."
Team USA trimmed its roster to 24 for the upcoming IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship with Buffalo Sabres draft pick Casey Fitzgerald and Youngstown native Joe Cecconi making the cut.
The final roster will be announced by Dec. 24. Team USA needs to make one more cut among the defensemen.
Fitzgerald, a third-round draft pick by the Sabres in June, is a sophomore defenseman at Boston College with five goals and eight assists in 13 games this season.
He was a member of the U.S. National Under-18 Team that won gold at the 2015 Under-18 World Championship. He had four points (one goal, four assists) in seven games.
Cecconi was drafted in the fifth round by Dallas in June. The sophomore defender at Michigan has one assist in 16 games.
Former Buffalo Sabre David Legwand announced his retirement Thursday after 16 NHL seasons.
Legwand played in 1,136 career NHL games including 79 with the Sabres in 2015-16, his final season in the NHL.
Legwand was traded on June 26, 2015 to Buffalo along with Lehner for a first round draft pick. He scored 14 points last season for the Sabres.