Stempniak seeks to mesh skills with Penguins' productive top line
Lee Stempniak is his own toughest critic.
The Penguins, though, are delighted with Stempniak's play on the right wing alongside Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz.
Stempniak, who has scored seven points in 10 games on the top unit and will have the remainder of the spring to better figure out playing with Crosby, still expects more from himself.
“He's added to Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz in the offensive zone,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “He's made that line better.”
Stempniak explained that, while he does feel comfortable in the offensive zone with Crosby and Kunitz, he hasn't yet mastered the Penguins' vaunted transition game.
“Early on, I was just chipping pucks to Sid right away,” Stempniak said. “I'm trying to hang on to it a little more now. Last game, I chipped it, and I should have carried it. The second time, I tried carrying it and put him offside. It's tough.”
Stempniak shook his head with mild disgust.
“But it's coming a little more every day, though,” he said.
Stempniak said developing chemistry can take time but also explained that the physics of playing with the NHL's leading scorer have been difficult to overcome. A few of Stempniak's passes have failed to connect, often drifting behind Crosby.
“Just playing with someone with his kind of speed has definitely been an adjustment for me,” he said. “He's got that burst. Such a burst. He's just so explosive. It takes awhile to get used to. Once he gets a step on a guy, you need to get him the puck. So much of it is anticipating when he's going to make a move.”
Providing puck support — or providing too much of it — also has been problematic for Stempniak.
“I'm still learning when to help him and when to give him space,” Stempniak said. “You need to be close enough to give him support when he needs it. But he doesn't always need it.”
To hear Stempniak speak, you would think that little offensive firepower has been evident. This simply isn't the case.
The Penguins' top line, slumping sporadically since the injury to Pascal Dupuis on Dec. 23, has found itself with the steady Stempniak on the right wing.
Crosby, Kunitz and Stempniak have combined for eight even-strength goals in their 10 games together, despite playing three of the NHL's best defensive teams: San Jose, Anaheim and St. Louis. In the previous 10 games, the Penguins' top line combined for two even-strength goals.
Stempniak, while still unsure of himself in transition, has been strong on the boards. He's also made a couple of highlight reel stick-handling adventures, proving more slippery than some of his teammates expected.
“He really is a pretty skilled guy,” center Brandon Sutter said.
The guy who faces Stempniak in practice every day is impressed.
“He's got really good hands and a good wrist shot,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “Maybe in Calgary he didn't have the same kind of teammates that he has here.”
Bylsma hinted that additional responsibilities are coming for Stempniak.
He will be used in a penalty-killing role soon and could also see work on the point while receiving power-play time.
Above all else, though, Stempniak was acquired to play with Crosby and Kunitz. He quickly acknowledged areas in which he can improve.
The numbers — along with his teammates and coaches — suggest he's doing just fine.
“He's been a good fit,” Bylsma said.