For the second consecutive year, the Carolina Hurricanes have brought in a veteran journeyman during the summer and used him to perfectly complement their existing top-six forwards.
Last year, it was Kris Versteeg. This year, it’s Lee Stempniak.
Signed as a free agent in July after playing for six teams over the last three seasons, 33-year-old Stempniak has made an immediate impact both individually (his six points through the season’s first five games are tied for the team lead) and externally — the two players with which he’s tied, Victor Rask and Jeff Skinner, are his linemates.
Indeed, after years of bouncing around the NHL, Stempniak seems to be quickly finding a comfortable niche with Carolina.
Such assessments are based on a very small sample size, but the ex-Ranger has thus far provided the Hurricanes’ superstar-lacking forward corps with an excellent shot, a deft playmaking touch and a keen offensive sense. He’s found the back of the net four times already, the most on the team.
And more importantly, he’s made both Rask and Skinner — two young players that the Hurricanes need to make a big impact this season — better.
Their line currently ranks third in the league with an otherworldly 60.6 percent shot attempt (Corsi) rating at 5-on-5 and fourth with a 63.3 percent rating in all situations, having collectively produced 81 shot attempts while conceding only 47. Their 69.7 percent ratio of scoring chances (23 for, 10 against) is even better, and their 77.8 percent ratio of goals (7 for, 2 against) is even better than that.
The trio’s chemistry has not only helped Stempniak settle into the Hurricanes’ lineup swiftly but also boosted Rask and Skinner to strong starts that, hopefully, will drive their momentum throughout the season.
Rask’s strange disparity between his seemingly “good” on-ice play and quantifiably “bad” advanced statistics was thrust into discussion this past summer by his big six-year, $24 million extension. That disparity, at least through a single handful of games in the 2016-17 campaign, is no more.
Meanwhile, Skinner’s red-hot finish to last season (16 points in his final 19 games), with the team already realistically out of the playoff race, seemed like a final stat line-inflating aberration that he wouldn’t be able to sustain. So far, that too hasn’t been the case: he has points in four of five games to begin this season.
The concept of Stempniak radiating productivity isn’t new. He has a reputation as a solid complementary player — it’s what has made him such an attractive trade deadline chip year after year — and he built upon that reputation last season.
In New Jersey, both Adam Henrique and Mike Cammalleri recorded higher goal and shot attempt ratios when playing with Stempniak than when not. In Boston, both Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron experienced the same phenomenon.
The concept of a recently added Hurricanes forward making the more established players around him better isn’t new, either.
Eric Staal, Versteeg’s most common linemate, was a clearly more effective player with Versteeg (55.3 percent goal ratio | 56.8 percent shot attempt ratio) than without him (47.8|53.3). Elias Lindholm, his second-most common linemate, was too: 54.5|58.0 with Versteeg, 35.2|51.9 without.
Versteeg’s socialistic benefits ultimately weren’t enough to save him from a spring trade, and the same fate could well also befall Stempniak (who, of anyone, must be used to it at this point) if the Hurricanes continue their current losing ways for the remainder of the campaign.
In the meantime, though, the team’s latest glue piece can be expected to continue chipping in regularly on the scoresheet — and helping those around him chip in even more.