Manitoba

Jets column: Jets miss on Stempniak on full display of late

Homecoming month continued at MTS Centre Saturday night.

There was no celebration this time. No fan fare. In fact, it was more of a funeral.

Lee Stempniak scored two goals and the New Jersey Devils beat the listless Jets 3-1, pushing the home team’s losing streak to three games. (todaysslapshot.com)

Homecoming month continued at MTS Centre Saturday night.

There was no celebration this time. No fan fare. In fact, it was more of a funeral.

Lee Stempniak returned to Winnipeg with no hype and minimal intrigue — there were no tracksuits or money phones involved — but his presence did come with a rather juicy storyline attached to it.

Stempniak scored two goals and the New Jersey Devils beat the listless Jets 3-1, pushing the home team's losing streak to three games. Winnipeg (21-24-3) remains in the Central Division basement, at least eight points back of the second wild card playoff spot with several teams in between.

In a way, Winnipeg's playoff predicament and overall disappointing play of late is tied directly to Stempniak. OK, maybe it's not a direct correlation between the Jets woes and the 32-year-old himself, but the idea of what a player like Stempniak represents is certainly worth exploring.

Rewind to last season — specifically the moment when the Jets decided to shore up the roster at the trade deadline in a push towards a playoff berth. The Jets, in a fight to qualify for post-season hockey since arriving back in Winnipeg, made the inexpensive move of adding some experience to the lineup.

And Stempniak, who found himself on the third line when he arrived, proved to be a rather shrewd move by general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff: He scored six goals and added four more assists in 18 games; he added another goal in the short-lived playoff round against Anaheim.

That doesn't sound that great, you say.

Well, keep in mind he was playing in a limited role — not getting many Top 6 minutes or meaningful power play time. Small sample or not, six goals in 18 games was an impressive output on a Jets team that put an emphasis on defence.

Over the summer, Cheveldayoff decided it was time for the fruits of his draft and develop process to jump into the fire. Youth was going to be served, like it or not, and there was no room for a player like Stempniak, who seemed to be quite comfortable in Winnipeg.

He was an unrestricted free agent last summer, and made it known that he would have preferred to stay in Jets colours. There was no offer — or at least no honest offe r— extended his way and Stempniak was forced to enter into a new world of unrestricted free agency for depth veterans, where term and dollars are few and far between.

Faced with no other options, he accepted a tryout offer with the Devils, made the team out of training camp and is playing on a one-year deal south of $1-million ($850,000).

Stempniak has 14 and 36 points this season. Yes, he is playing top-line minutes in the rather thin Devils lineup but that's neither here nor there. No one was penciling him in to replace Blake Wheeler or Mathieu Perreault in Winnipeg.

No, you sign Stempniak (or someone like him) to a cheap short-term deal because he is a quality depth player who is an upgrade to what you currently have near the bottom of your pool of NHL players. You sign him because he is able to slide into your first or second lines when injuries inevitably hit.

And if your club doesn't get through the injuries or isn't able to find the right mix to be competitive for a playoff spot, then you have an asset that can be flipped for a mid-round draft pick—thereby keeping the draft and develop disciples fat and happy for another summer.

Whoops.

Instead, Cheveldayoff crossed his fingers on a couple young prospects who weren't completely ready for the NHL grind and gifted them roster spots. Nikolaj Ehlers excluded, it hasn't worked out.

Instead, Cheveldayoff chose to stand pat with usual bang and crasher Chris Thorburn, Matt Halischuk and Anthony Peluso. And when key players went down with injury, which is exactly what has transpired this month, there was no one to available to pick up the offensive slack.

Fun fact: Winnipeg has scored four goals in its last four games.

If you don't think a player like Stempniak could help the Jets this season, that's fine. You might be right. You might be wrong.

But the lack of foresight by the Jets in terms of how the young players/current depth would manage, and how a veteran player like Stempniak, if his presence didn't help the Jets into a playoff position, could have been a nice asset at the deadline should not be glossed over or thrown away as an afterthought.

It probably will be, though. Just like the player in question.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?

now