The Devils didn't really make many big splashes during the 2015 offseason via trade or free agency. With the team needing a fresh start and a new direction, incoming GM Ray Shero focused on cleaning out the roster and starting to evaluate what the Devils had with some of the organization's younger players. Beyond the swap for Kyle Palmieri at the NHL Draft, the Devils were mostly silent as the summer progressed. The thinking was that the Devils would be focusing on seeing what they had within the organization as the team started on a much-needed rebuild. Heading toward training camp, though, the Devils decided they likely needed some reinforcements for a remarkably shallow set of forwards, so they went bargain-hunting. With teams having to manage the salary cap these days, there always seems to be a handful of quality depth forwards floating around as training camp nears. Ray Shero seized on two of these players in September in the form of Lee Stempniak and Jiri Tlusty. Thus far, the two have served as effective case studies in the boom and bust ends of the spectrum for these bargain pickups.
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Stats via devils.nhl.com and war-on-ice.com
NHL nomad Lee Stempniak has bounced around the league at an uncanny rate throughout his career. In what is his 11th NHL season, Stempniak has now played with 8 different NHL squads. His changes in scenery have been particularly frequent of late, as he has been with a ridiculous 5 teams since March of 2014. In the past couple years, he seems to have found the NHL's paradoxical sweet spot of being simultaneously desirable and expendable at all times (on the bright side, he's probably racked up a ton of hotel rewards points). This summer, after not re-signing with his fourth team in two seasons, the Jets, Stempniak languished in free agency limbo for pretty much the entire offseason before resorting to signing a professional tryout contract with the Devils coming into training camp. The Devils, who had a very quiet offseason (in free agency, at least), were doing some value-hunting and decided to give Stempniak a shot in New Jersey. After signing him to a one-year deal coming out of preseason, the Devils have to be immensely pleased with this decision as Stempniak has been a big part of the Devils' successful start in 2015-16.
About two months in, Stempniak is slotted in on New Jersey's top line with Adam Henrique and Mike Cammalleri and producing in a big way for New Jersey. His 16 points in 20 games is good for second on the team and he has been a solid contributor in all situations, getting significant time on both the penalty kill and the power play. He has been everything one can hope for from a player signed on a tryout. He has been getting pucks on net with the fourth most shots and the third-most attempts on the team and he has been distributing the puck well, with his 12 assists being just two behind the team leader, Cammalleri.
For whatever reason, Stempniak's style seems to have him thriving in New Jersey at this point. His speed has helped the Devils create through the neutral zone and his versatility has allowed the Devils to use him in a lot of different roles. You aren't typically counting on a guy who came in on a tryout to be a solid all-around top-6 contributor for your team, but the Devils have gotten exactly that thus far from Lee Stempniak. If he can continue to be a part of the Devils' productive first line unit and help this team stay competitive, perhaps the NHL nomad can avoid the trade deadline carousel for once this spring.
Jiri Tlusty's tenure with the Devils has been a little bit more rocky, thus far. Tlusty did not have to wait out a training camp tryout as he was given a contract upon arrival in New Jersey, but since the season opened, he has had a lot of trouble finding his footing on the roster. Where Stempniak has thrived, Tlusty has faltered so far as a Devil. His struggles have reached the point that he will likely be a healthy scratch in his second straight game tonight against Columbus. One doesn't need to look too much further than his basic stats to recognize that he has had issues in the first couple months of the season. His one goal and two assists in 16 games are certainly underwhelming and he hasn't looked too much better on the ice than those stats would indicate.
Tlusty actually scored (or at least got credit for) the Devils' first goal of the season back on opening night versus Winnipeg. Since then, he has had a big ol' doughnut in the goals column and, given that the goal he does have was really a Jacob Trouba own-goal, we have yet to see Jiri Tlusty hit the back of the net with one of his shots in a Devils jersey. This is a big problem, as the Devils were hoping Tlusty would add some much-needed depth to this crew of forwards, but to this point, it just hasn't happened for the Czech winger. With just one point in his last 14 games, Tlusty has ceded his spot on the second line to Sergey Kalinin and seen his ice time continuously fall until his current stint in the scratch suite.
In addition to the lack of production, Tlusty has just looked like a non-factor on many nights this season. He's a player whose style means his primary function on a team is to score. Since he's not scoring right now, his contributions have been minimal. Tlusty doesn't get penalty kill minutes and he's not going to be relied on in defensive situations at 5-on-5, as his underlying numbers pretty much indicate, so he will have to produce if he hopes to reestablish himself in the lineup. His underwhelming 16 shots in 16 games also show that he's not just snakebitten either, he needs to get more pucks on net. To be fair to Tlusty, he has been dealing with some nagging injuries the past few weeks, but he will have to get himself right to return to the good graces of the coaching staff. With the Devils scoring depth looking as woeful as it does right now, a producing Jiri Tlusty would certainly be a welcome sight in New Jersey.
For the Devils to keep up this surprise run of competence, they need players like Stempniak and Tlusty to contribute. In Stempniak's case, the hope is that he can at least keep up a remotely similar pace as the season progresses. Historically, he's been more of a half point per game type of guy, but he has also likely rarely been given a role as large as he's had with the Devils. If the line of him, Henrique, and Cammalleri can continue to produce, it would be a welcome sight. On the other end of the spectrum, the Devils could use major reversal of fortunes for Jiri Tlusty. Beyond the group of five that has carried New Jersey thus far, the next-highest point total for a forward remains at four (!) points a quarter of the way into the season. Tlusty regaining his scoring touch would definitely help with those depth woes for the Devils but it's hard to determine how likely a return to form is for the struggling winger.
So what are your thoughts? Can Stempniak build on this strong start and continue to play a big role for New Jersey? Can Jiri Tlusty find his game and help the Devils with their depth issues? Comment with your thoughts below and thanks for reading.