Today the Carolina Hurricanes announced that Lee Stempniak had been activated from injured reserve. With recent call ups Lucas Wallmark and Aleksi Saarela back with the Charlotte Checkers, the Hurricanes rosters stands at 23 players including 14 forwards. Today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes a reasonably deep dive at considering where Lee Stempniak fits into the current equation.
Where Lee Stempniak left off exiting the 2016-17 season
It has been so long since the Caniac nation has seen Lee Stempniak in action, I think an important starting point is revisiting his role and level of play during the 2016-17 season. Coming off a strong 2015-16 season that saw Stempniak finish with 19 goals and 51 points, the Hurricanes signed Stempniak to a two-year deal worth $2.5 million per season. Stempniak showed chemistry in preseason with Victor Rask and Jeff Skinner, and the trio started hot. But as the season wore on, Stempniak bounced around lines, provided decent depth scoring but never really found a higher gear or a permanent slot in the lineup. His 16 goals and 40 points in 82 games were what I would term decent depth scoring.
My end of season evaluation for Stempniak’s 2016-17 campaign is HERE.
With the addition of Justin Williams during the offseason, Stempniak figured to slot as the third right wing behind Williams and Elias Lindholm. With his injury to start the season, Peters adjusted and moved flexible forward Teuvo Teravainen into the slot vacated by Stempniak to have three top 9 right wings.
Lee Stempniak’s transition phase
After missing exactly half of the season and not starting with any kind of rehab stint in the AHL, the initial games for Stempniak will be more about helping him get up to speed and shaking off any rust. His minutes will likely be somewhat limited initially, and he could slot about anywhere. If I had to take a guess, I think he could see some time in the first few games at right wing on the fourth line in the spot usually filled by Phil Di Giuseppe or Josh Jooris (assuming Marcus Kruger is in the lineup). Stempniak is a good enough two-way player to play on such a line, and that would also help keep his minutes to a modest number in the early going. He can also shift up higher in the lineup if he hits the ground running.
Where Stempniak might fit longer term
Longer-term, the biggest thing that Lee Stempniak brings to the lineup is depth in the form of a decent all-around player capable of providing at least depth scoring. If Sebastian Aho, who was injured on Saturday, but practiced normally on Monday is the lineup on Tuesday, the current iteration of the top 9 is not really in need of another right wing. Peters likes (for good reason) the TSA line right now which has Teuvo Teravainen in a right wing slot, and Justin Williams and Elias Lindholm fill the other two slots.
I see three scenarios for Stempniak longer-term:
1) A fourth line upgrade. If the Hurricanes stay healthy, the TSA line stays together and the team can get enough penalty kill help from higher line forwards, Stempniak could play on the fourth line with the hope that he himself can score more than the current options and even better possibly help spark the entire line.
2) Injury depth at right wing. If the Hurricanes face an injury setback at any of the six top 9 wing slots, Stempniak would be first in line to help fill the void. If the injury is on the right side, Stempniak just fills the hole directly. If the injury is on the left side, Teravainen could possibly move across to open up a spot on the right side for Stempniak.
3) A regular right wing given some shuffling. If Peters is willing to go away from the Aho/Staal/Teravainen, Stempniak could possibly present a scoring upgrade for the top 9. The general idea would be to move Teravainen to the left side into Brock McGinn’s slot and then back fill Teravainen’s slot with Stempniak. With McGinn having a strong 2017-18 campaign thus far and providing decent depth scoring considering his role and ice time, the question is whether Stempniak is an upgrade over McGinn, especially at the expense of breaking up the TSA line.
With the Hurricanes deeper at the forward position and healthy so far, Lee Stempniak does not fill any burning needs right now, but I think he represents quality forward depth and possibly an upgrade to the fourth line. As we push closer to the trade deadline, he is exactly the kind of depth that playoff contenders often seek out. As such, he could preempt the need for Francis to add a depth type player at the forward position.
As a player who was over 50 points only two years ago, the wild card could be if he gets up to speed, finds a scoring rhythm and is fresh down the stretch because of only playing half of a season.
Regardless of where he fits, it is great to see Lee Stempniak back in the lineup after a long delay to the start of his 2017-18 season.