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 entered Tuesday night’s game against the Sabres tied for second in scoring on New Jersey with 23 points in 30 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 30 games, the trio combined for 31 goals, 45 assists and 76 points, including seven 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.”