In the coming days, we're profiling some of the new faces who will be a part of the Rangers this year. Get familiar!
Of all the decisions the Rangers will have to make in training camp when it comes to line combinations, Lee Stempniak oddly has a consensus spot locked up. Many assume the former Penguin to slot in on the Rangers third line, taking the place of Benoit Pouliot, who signed a five-year deal this summer with Edmonton.
That assumption needs some unpacking though, and Stempniak needs some introducing.
After spending two seasons in Calgary, Stempniak was shipped to Pittsburgh at last year's trade deadline. He went from flanking Matt Stajan to playing alongside Sidney Crosby, quite the upgrade. Production wise, Stempniak's numbers reflected that, as despite less ice time, and fewer games, as his .44 points per game jumped to .52. Not a spectacular increase, but something was expected when getting grouped with the world's best player.
Calling Stempniak a replacement for Pouliot is fair, although it's not as simple as a sign-and-plug. Odds are the 31-year-old winger won't play with Pouliot's former battering mates Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard.
Here's the problem though: The Rangers third line will not be as good as it was last year. It's plain and simple, and not really a bold statement. Some combination of Stempniak, Carl Hagelin, and J.T. Miller or Matthew Lombardi will likely skate on the unit.
But that's not to say Stempniak can't be more effective than Pouliot. In reality, it was really Zuccarello and Brassard who carried the Rangers third line. The two players were two of the top linemates in the league when it came to combined setup passes. Benoit Pouliot provided a much needed 15 goals from his spot in the lineup, but he wasn't efficient in his scoring.
In saying that, Stempniak played with the best setup man in the league in Crosby. He led the league in that setup pass statistic, and was brought in to be a weapon alongside Pittsburgh's world beater. The good news is, the expectations for him as a Ranger will be far lower. If he does end up playing with a combination of Hagelin and Miller/Lombardi, the unit will be very fast. It should also be a decent possession unit, as Hagelin is good at driving play, as is Miller. (Lombardi in his last NHL stint was not, but the guy is a major wild card at this point.)
Stempniak's role and expectations are very understated, yet very clear. He got a lot more defensive zone starts last year than Hagelin (it will be interesting to see how Alain Vgineault deploys his speedster next season if he plays with Stempniak), and expected to be accountable in his own end.