Stempniak has filled a variety of roles in NHL career - 03-19-14

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

The first round of 2003 draft featured plenty of players who eventually became franchise players or all-stars such as Marc-Andre Fleury, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf and Eric Staal. It also had plenty of serviceable players such as Brent Burns and Brian Boyle.

It also had Hugh Jessiman who logged all of two NHL games in his career and by even the most generous assessments, ended up being a bust as the No. 12 overall pick by the Rangers.

Chances are, if Jessiman, who at 6-foot-6 and 221 pounds was nicknamed "Huge Specimen," had not drawn so many attention for his considerable physical attributes, Lee Stempniak might not have been drafted No. 148 overall in the fifth round by the Blues.

In the decade since being selected No. 148 overall in the fifth round of the 2003 draft, Stempniak has filled a variety of roles for the Blues, Maple Leafs, Coyotes and Flames before joining the Penguins at the trade deadline earlier this month.

Recently, Stempniak who scored his first goal for the Penguins last night, recounted how he got to the NHL thanks to a little help from Jessiman as well as his own journey through the league:

At what point did potentially becoming an NHL player become a reality for you?

"I played tier two junior hockey I got on the Central Scouting watching list a little bit but nothing really happened. I was recruited by a couple of schools but Dartmouth was the one came after me the hardest. I went to visit there. Had the opportunity to play a lot as a freshman and fell in love with the school. I loved every bit of four of my years there. It was great. My sophomore year, I was playing on a line with [future Rangers first-round draft pick] Hugh Jessiman. Everyone [scouts] was coming to watch him play. We were playing on the same line and I finished with a few more than him. He was going to be a first-round pick and I think that’s sort of when it went from a dream to a realistic thing to strive for. I ended up being drafted the summer after my sophomore year by St. Louis. I was really dedicated to hockey and wanted it but at that point, it sort of transitioned into a plan to get there. I decided to stay a couple of summers at Dartmouth so I could work out with the strength coach there. I could get bigger and stronger and worked on my game a lot after practice. I’d say that the year I went from being every kid dreaming of the NHL to a tangible thing to work towards."

So did you benefit from being Jessiman's linemate in that scouts also got to see you?

"Yeah, I think so. We had 20 NHL teams almost every game watching him. We played on the same team and he was a great player there. I sort of benefitted from people coming to watch him. [Former Blues executive] Jarmo Kekäläinen who is the Columbus GM now, he took a flyer on me in the fifth round."

What were the steps between being drafted and turning professional?

"I played the last two years of college. My senior year was the [2004-05 NHL] lockout. After I graduated, I just worked out like crazy that summer and skated a lot. I actually skated with Brooks Orpik quite a bit and some other guys in the NHL and started to get a feel for what it was going to be like. Started asking a lot of questions about training camp. Went into [the 2006] training camp and played pretty well. Ended up sticking around. Played three or four games right out of training camp then got send down to Peoria. Got sent up and down. I was up quite a bit. I mean, it was pretty surreal. I went to training camp. I knew two guys. I didn’t know anything. I had no expectations. In my mind, I just didn’t want to end up in Alaska where the [ECHL] team was. I think part of it was not knowing anyone and not giving the veteran players too much respect. I just tried to out and play my game. Played hard and respected their skill but if you went into a corner with them, you had to go and get the puck from them or win those 50-50 puck battles. I guess I caught the coaches’ eye. I think I was the beneficiary of a situation where they just put in the salary cap and they traded Pavol Demitra so there were a couple openings at forward."

You had your best season in terms of production in 2006-07 when you scored 27 goals while playing on a line with David Backes and Jay McClement.

"I played a lot with them but I played a lot with [forward] Keith Tkachuk too when lines got mixed up or we were down by a goal. I sort of played myself into playing on the point on the power play. When [head coach] Andy Murray came in that was one of the first things was put me on the point on the power play so I got to shoot a lot. It was a good year. I got a lot of opportunities. I feel like I didn’t get a ton of scoring opportunities but when I got them, they were pretty quality chances and I was able to put them in. I wasn’t a volume shooter by any means. I’d get one shot or two shots a game and they both might go in or one might go in. Then I might not get a shot the next game then get a couple the next game. So it wasn’t like I was consistently getting four, five shots a game. I was getting the puck in good spots."

Early in 2008-09, you were traded for the first time in your career to Toronto. What was that like?

"It was a complete shock to me. It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I signed a three-year deal the year before coming off that year in 2006-07. I was shocked. I had never been through it. I thought everything was going really well. I think when I got traded, I had 13 points in 14 games with St. Louis. It really felt like I was sort of coming into my own. It was a shock. It was a huge adjustment going to Toronto on a lot of levels. I had never been traded. I think I was a little bit shy, a little bit timid going to a new team and not jumping in right away. That’s something I’ve learned looking back on it, if you’re on a new team you just got to jump in and play your game and really believe in your ability and that the reason the team got you is they like the way you play. Do things to your strengths and help the team that way. It was a huge shock. It sort of put the business side of it into reality for me where things change in a hurry and it’s really a job."

What worked or didn't work for you in with the Maple Leafs?

"The first year, I really struggled after the trade. I couldn’t really get anything going. The next year, I actually thought I played pretty well. I came to training camp, had a pretty good training camp. I played a lot. Started killing penalties. I was playing the point on the power play. I think there, I started to round down my game where I was playing harder minutes against the [opponent’s] top lines. I’d say a third line, checking role. Played a lot against team’s top lines and developed more of a feel for the both end of the rinks there."

The next stop in your career was with the Coyotes after a trade in 2009-10. You spent parts of two seasons there.

"That was a great change for me. That was an opportunity to go to the team that was winning. I went there and played really well after the trade. I played on a line with Taylor Pyatt and Vernon Fiddler a lot. We had a lot of success, scored a lot of goals. Played a little bit with Matt Lombardi and Wojtek Wolski. It was good. That was the first time I was in the playoffs was that year. I came from Toronto where things weren’t going that well. Dave [Tippett] is a great coach in terms of the details of the game and the way he plays to his team’s strengths. We played a really sound, defensive game and as a result were able to get a lot of chances in transition and a lot of scoring opportunities off the forecheck. It was good to play there."

You were traded to the Flames in the 2011 offseason and spent parts of the last three seasons in Calgary before being traded to the Penguins.

"It was good. The last two years especially under Bob Hartley, I played a lot. Had a big role on the team. Learned a lot of the finer details of the game from Bob. He used a lot of video as the coaches do here and a lot of the practices were detail-oriented. Where to put your stick. How to angle a guy. Little things. Positioning that made me a lot better player. It’s helped me defensively. It’s helped me in position in the offensive zone. Going to the front of the net. I learned a lot there. The last year, I played in a bit of a checking role with Matt Stajan and Curtis Glencross and we played against other team’s top lines. We had a lot of success as a line."

(Photos: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images, Dale MacMillan/Getty Images and Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)

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