The New York Rangers ended 2014 right, beating the Florida Panthers 5-2 in a dominant New Year's Eve effort. It was also the second time all year Alain Vigneault has seated Tanner Glass in the press box as a healthy scratch.
We've talked a lot recently about the impact Glass in having on the lineup -- including the criticism of the head coach reaching a fever pitch last Saturday when Vigneault opted to sit Jesper Fast in favor of Glass. The decision was a poor one, Glass had a really bad game and the Rangers lost (ending their eight-game winning streak).
Vigneault rectified the decision against Florida, and the Rangers responded with a 5-2 win. This isn't about Glass (directly) though, it's about Lee Stempniak.
As Vigneault has twisted and contorted himself around keeping Glass in the lineup a few different players have gotten hit with the ax. J.T. Miller, Fast, Anthony Duclair and Stempniak have all been victims. The problem? All of those names are quality hockey players who add something tangible to the Rangers lineup.
Some people -- who still believe enforcers have a role in a team's success -- have argued that Stempniak should be the spare part Vigneault holds in his pocket in case of injury or suspension. You'll probably be shocked to know that I disagree with this idea.
Let's take a look at all the players jockeying for those open bottom six positions (thanks to war on ice):
This chart has a few parts, so let's run through it so we all know what we're looking at. The X-axis is the % of offensive zone starts. The Y-axis is the player's corsi-for percentage, while the color indicates the player's average TOI. All numbers are based off 5v5 play.
Dominic Moore continues to be an inspiration on the fourth line. He's almost at a positive corsi% despite starting in his own zone about 75% of the time and playing with, well, Glass most nights. That's remarkable, and really speaks to how good (and underrated) Moore has been for the Rangers. Fast also has pretty decent numbers considering his usage is the most defensively brutal on the team.
Stempniak -- with far less defensive zone starts -- is doing exactly what you'd want him to do. Despite being used in a slightly defensive setting he's still pushing a positive corsi and is driving puck possession. Miller's statistics are also really impressive. He's getting a very slightly easier load than Stempniak and is driving the most possession of the seven players on the chart. This is probably why so many people had their jaws hit the floor when Vigneault said Miller "could be playing better" and sat him against the Devils.
Hayes and Duclair are in a different category, since both are pretty sheltered and are looked to for some offense. They are, however, doing what you'd expect them to do with the more offensive workload, and we've seen Hayes get better and better with each game he plays.
Glass, as you can see above, has a slightly better corsi% than Fast, but he has the benefit of a less punishing deployment. Also, Fast is a far superior defensive player who has rounded out really well with Moore on the fourth line.
That's why adding Stempniak to that group -- a player with a little more offensive intentions and the ability to move the puck in that direction -- will help. If Fast were to be moved to a more offensive line (which shouldn't happen because of his defensive ability) you'd see him drive just as much possession if not more than Stempniak. That's why fans have been begging for a fourth line of Fast - Moore - Stempniak, and it's why they get so annoyed when you sit a qualified player to fit Glass in.
I already know some of the arguments against Stempniak: He's not tough and he doesn't add enough offense. Stempniak has 12 points in 29 games this year, and does enough away from the puck that makes those totals more than acceptable. Are there games where he's rough around the edges? Of course. But I'd argue the worst from Stempniak is better than the average from Glass -- and that might be generous. As for toughness, well, I explained why this shouldn't be much of a factor here, and don't have much to add to it.
Simply put, Stempniak has quite easily earned a spot on this team over Glass. He's a veteran presence (that Vigneault loves so much) and he's a player that you can trust in the big moments of a game -- unlike Glass who played all of 20 seconds in the third period against Dallas.
When Duclair comes back -- if Vigneault doesn't make the call to send him back to juniors -- you have a llegitimate case of whether or not Stempniak should dress every night. Even then, though, you're choosing between two qualified players rather than a great guy off the ice but someone whose game is no longer needed in the NHL.
Until that happens (or if Duclair gets sent back to juniors), Stempniak shouldn't be a spare part, he should be a mainstay.