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Stempniak Enjoying Top Line Role

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Before training camp started a month or so ago, people were predicting who might end up on the top line for the New Jersey Devils. At the time, no one would've said Lee Stempniak. Nonetheless, he is here, and he has been playing well. Will it last?

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

So who would have thought that before the start of training camp, one of the early top line staples for the New Jersey Devils would have been Lee Stempniak?  Nonetheless, that has been the case so far.  Since joining the team in mid-September on a PTO, Stempniak has risen up the ranks.  He was the lone PTO to get a contract out of training camp, and he even got more than the league minimum, which suggests that he really did a good job of impressing the coaching staff.  However, at the time I'm not sure anyone realized just how much he impressed them.

Through the first 7 games of the season, Lee has seen some quality time on the ice, and almost all of it with the first line.  So far, he has averaged 18:28 seconds per game of ice time, which ranks fourth amongst forwards on the team, behind only Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique and Mike Cammalleri. And of course, the current top line consists of Henrique and Cammalleri, and has also contained Zajac at times, so the only forwards who are seeing more time than him are those who also occupy or have occupied top line positions.

Unlike with other lines and pairings, which have been shaken up often, John Hynes and Co. are more or less leaving the top line alone to gel as well.  At this point, the trio of Henrique, Cammalleri and Stempniak have been on the ice more as a unit than any other on the team, having been out there for 13.9% of New Jersey's ice time.  So whereas Hynes has seemingly been more apt to change up the lines elsewhere to find a spark, he has decided to essentially leave the top unit alone, in hopes that they will come together nicely and produce quality points.

To this effect, they have not disappointed, not even Lee.  At this point, those three skaters have produced more points than anyone else on this team.  Cammalleri leads the way with 2 goals and 8 points, producing at over a point per game clip, but both Henrique and Stempniak have produced points as well.  Henrique clearly has the edge, of course, with 4 goals to Lee's 2, but nonetheless Stempniak has 6 points in 7 games.  That is nothing to shake your head at.  6 points in 7 games gives Lee a point percentage of 85.7%.  Over the course of the season, if he were able to keep up the scoring pace, he would end up with somewhere around 70 points in 82 games.  Before the season, if you told me that a PTO would produce anywhere near 70 points for NJ this season, I would have said there was absolutely no way, but Lee is on that pace.  Of course, that is a tough pace to maintain, but even if he produces 50+ points this season, that would be a huge boon for this offense.

The question, of course, is whether or not this is something that Stempniak can sustain over the course of a full season.  While that question is impossible to answer, as lines could get shifted at any point and he could be dropped to a lesser role, nonetheless let's look at some underlying numbers so far to get at least some sort of idea.  Statistical information that follows will come from Puckalytics.

First, let's look at a possession chart for NJ skaters up to this point (NOTE: the stats in the following two charts do not include Thursday night's contest against Ottawa, but tell a similar story nonetheless):

Player

TOI

CF60

CA60

CF%

CF% Relative

Adam Henrique

80:46

37.9

31.9

54.3

5.7

Eric Gelinas

55:20

42.3

36.9

53.4

4.8

Lee Stempniak

78:28

44.4

41.3

51.8

1.7

Mike Cammalleri

91:30

44.6

42.0

51.5

3.1

Jacob Josefson

64:59

36.9

35.1

51.3

2.5

Adam Larsson

111:05

35.1

35.6

49.6

1.2

David Schlemko

85:22

44.3

45.0

49.6

1.0

John Moore

78:16

46.8

47.5

49.6

2.2

Damon Severson

72:51

38.7

40.4

49.0

0.8

Jiri Tlusty

78:25

33.7

36.0

48.4

0.6

In the chart, I listed all of the skaters on the team who have a positive relative Corsi percentage.  This means that the team has better possession stats when they are out on the ice as opposed to when they are on the bench.

As you notice, in terms of pure Corsi For percentage, Stempniak is third on the team with a nice positive number of 51.8%.  Only 5 skaters have a positive possession stat, and he is one of them.  The entire top line of him, Cammalleri and Henrique are all positive, which means that to start the season, they have been beating their opposition regularly while out on the ice.  That is awesome to see, and I hope that it continues.  It could be one major reason as to why Henrique has stepped it up so far.  Of course, Stempniak's relative Corsi is not quite as high as you would like to see, but still, a +1.7 means that he is not simply riding the coattails of his line mates.  He is also out there pushing play forward.  That is extremely important to know if the production is to continue.

Next, we need to make sure that his possession numbers are not being bolstered by sheltered starts.  For this chart, I am only going to look at the players who currently have a positive Corsi.

Player

OZFO%

NZFO%

DZFO%

Adam Henrique

32.6

44.9

22.5

Eric Gelinas

40.0

40.0

20.0

Lee Stempniak

36.8

28.9

34.2

Mike Cammalleri

28.7

39.1

32.2

Jacob Josefson

37.9

33.3

28.8

From the chart, I think it is fairly clear that he is not overly sheltered.  To start, he has the highest defensive zone start percentage of any player listed there.  He does have a high offensive zone start percentage, but that will happen more often than not when you are on a top line that is winning the possession battle.  Yes that probably does help his possession stats somewhat, but given that his defensive zone starts are also high, I believe that they cancel each other out to a degree.  He clearly is not sheltered to the same degree that Gelinas or even Josefson have been so far.

Conclusion

So, the main question is can Lee's production be sustainable over the long haul?  I think that given the underlying possession stats, the answer can be yes, to a degree.  If he continues to receive consistent top line minutes alongside Henrique/Zajac and Cammalleri, he will continue to produce at a decent clip.  He may not light the lamps up constantly, but an 85.7% point percentage is excellent, and it will help this team win some games.  That point percentage will undoubtedly drop, and I don't expect him to sustain that sort of pace, but a quality pace over a half point per game is certainly reasonable and could be expected.  For this season, and for this team, he seems to be situated well.

Your Thoughts

What are your thoughts? Are you happy that Stempniak has emerged as an everyday top line winger for the Devils?  If not, who would you prefer to see skate alongside Cammalleri and Henrique?  Looking at the numbers, do you believe that he can sustain the pace that he is currently on?  Please leave your comments in the section below, and thanks for reading.