Rick Nash's hot start to the 2014-15 season has been amazing and a huge boon for the Blueshirts, but he isn't the only Rangers winger who is playing above expectations.
A story like Lee Stempniak scoring four points in his first seven games as a Ranger isn't exactly sexy compared to Rick Nash scoring goals at will, Anthony Duclair looking absolutely amazing, or Kevin Hayes looking like the real deal as the Rangers' third line center, but Lee Stempniak has been just what the doctor ordered for the Rangers' lineup. As Evan pointed out back in late July, Stempniak was brought in as a frugal replacement for Benoit Pouliot, who left the Rangers in free agency to sign a big contract in Edmonton.
Thus far we've seen Stempniak play on the Rangers' third line with Carl Hagelin on his opposite wing and Dominic Moore as his center. In that role, Stempniak has been solid. Stempniak is currently seventh among Rangers' forwards in power play TOI/G (including Anthony Duclair), and that is for good reason. Much like the other depth forward getting power play ice time, Chris Mueller, Lee Stempniak is a right handed shot. With Derek Stepan and Dan Boyle out of the lineup (the two most talented right handed players on the Rangers' roster), the Rangers desperately need Lee Stempniak to make an impact on the man advantage. It's worth pointing out that he's never scored more than five power play goals in a season, but he is certainly passing the eye test on a rather stale looking Rangers' power play. Having a guy who can pull the trigger with a right handed shot can and will keep penalty kills more honest and Stempniak's shot, as we have seen, is pretty darn good.
In seven games Lee Stempniak is third on the team in shots (behind only Rick Nash and Chris Kreider) and that is just what we want to see from him, North-South hockey and getting pucks on net. The advanced stats on the West Seneca, New York native are encouraging, but I didn't think that they worth bringing up giving the small sample sizes we are dealing with. If you want to take a look at how he compares to the other Rangers through the first seven games of the season, you can take a look at that here. Stempniak, probably by virtue of his linemates and the fact that he is trusted in the defensive zone, is not seeing sheltered ice time. The coaches trust him in his own zone so much so that he is deployed on the penalty kill and through the first seven games of the season he is getting a minute and a half of shorthanded TOI/G, which is fourth among Ranger's forwards (excluding Jesper Fast who has played just three games).
I really liked the Stempniak signing when I heard about it this offseason. One year at $900,000 for a right handed right winger with good speed that can hit and play top six minutes if there is an injury or a need to shake things up? To me, it sounded like a great depth signing. Thus far, that is exactly what Stempniak has been. He's getting to play in all kinds of situations and could see his role expand even more if he continues to provide the Rangers with his dependable play. Of course, the season is young and there is a lot of hockey still to be played, but Stempniak playing solid hockey on the Rangers' third line is a great sign for the Rangers moving forward.
It might not be too long before we start to ask ourselves if Stempniak turns out to be an upgrade over Benoit Pouliot, who was somewhat carried by his Rangers linemates Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard. If Stempniak keeps peppering the net with shots, looking good on special teams, and keeps playing North-South hockey with Hagelin and Dominic Moore (and likely Kevin Hayes when Derek Stepan returns) we might just be calling him the best Rangers' veteran free agent signing of this past offseason.
Let's go Rangers.