Lee Stempniak has been set loose, like a man escaping prison after
years of purgatory. After every goal he scores for the Coyotes, I
picture Andy Dufresne
raising his arms to the sky in the pouring rain after slogging 300
yards through filth to freedom.
Since being traded to the Coyotes,
Stempniak has 13 goals and 16 points in 14 games, with an outlandish
30% shooting percentage. He’s been named the NHL’s player of the month
for March, and has become an integral part of the Coyotes’ improbable
push for the top seed in the West. His plus-7 rating is what is most
impressive, by far the best of his career.
It’s the perfect
example of a new environment and a new team
freeing a frustrated player.
“I think (being
traded) was a welcome change,” Stempniak said Friday
after a Coyotes practice. “I certainly wasn’t ready to give up on being
in Toronto or quit on that team. … To come to a team like this was
really, really exciting. It’s a good team and a fresh start, and I’ve
been fortunate to have some success and find chemistry.”
27 goals, Stempniak has tied his career high for a season and has five
games to add to that total. It’s not just scoring goals though, coach
Dave Tippett says.
“He’s been tremendous. … He’s meshed very well with our guys. He’s
kind of a quiet personality, which is not bad having a quiet personality
and carrying a big stick.”
I’m sure being a quiet guy, an underwhelming personality of sorts,
fits much better in Tippett’s locker room in Phoenix. The pressure in
Toronto is tremendous, and making a move to a team like Phoenix can
really free a player up to just focus on what he does best: play hockey.
Ask Mike Ribeiro how that’s worked out for him.
Stempniak’s story — along with the Coyotes — is certainly one of
the highlights of the season. Who would have even contemplated a
sentence like that six months ago?