After nine teams and six trades in 11 seasons, forward Lee Stempniak knows all about vagabond life in the NHL.
"When you get right down to it, most guys are complementary pieces,” says a front office executive with a Western Conference team. “They bring something to the table, whatever it is, and they might be a very nice fit. But you're always looking for something better, a better fit. And so's everybody else.”
And that's why forward Lee Stempniak has been a man on the move, suiting up for nine different teams during his 11-year career in the NHL.
"A player who has a history of being a reliable secondary scorer, that's someone who's going to be in demand," says the exec. "But you don't want to get married to a secondary scorer. That's how you wind up in salary cap trouble. So you might let someone like that go under the right circumstances. If it makes sense, it makes sense."
Most recently, it made sense for the rebuilding New Jersey Devils, who sent Stempniak, their leading scorer, to the Boston Bruins at the trade deadline in February for two draft picks. It was the sixth time that Stempniak had been traded, including at each of the last three deadlines—nearly 4,000 miles of travel—from Calgary to Pittsburgh, New York to Winnipeg, Newark to Boston. While he still has a ways to go before he equals Mike "Suitcase" Sillinger's career marks of 10 trades and 12 teams, Stempniak always seems to be packing his bag and moving on to a new locker room. Wife Lindsay stays home with the kids. Stempniak manages his life on the ice. Off it, it’s different.
“It’s hard,” Stempniak tells SI.com. He pauses. “It’s hard.”
At least his most recent team plays where he and Lindsay and their twin daughters, Lucy and Reese, make their home in the off-season. The twins arrived in 2014, just before one of Stempniak's trades. They were six weeks early and the ensuing five days of unexpected chaos became a symbol of the family's next three years.
In the time between the birth of the twins and the trade, Stempniak, who was then with the Flames, traveled to Minnesota for a game, then flew back to Calgary with the team only to find out he had been traded to Pittsburgh. He played in San Jose and Anaheim with his new club and flew cross-country to Washington, D.C for a game against the Capitals. Meanwhile, Lindsay set up shop in Boston where the twins would spend a month in a neo-natal intensive care unit.
As Stempniak settled into his new home on Sidney Crosby’s right wing, Lucy and Reese settled into their new world, tubes and all. Not that their dad got to see them very much. Over the three months between the March 5 trade and the Penguins’ second-round playoff exit, Stempniak saw his girls on just four days. Last season, after he was traded from the Rangers to the Jets, he didn’t see his family for two-and-a-half months.
It's been a long strange trip for a player who left Darmouth as one of its best. Stempniak ranks fourth in points (161) and second in games played (135) for the Big Green. He’s played the most NHL games (781 and counting) of any alumnus.
“He played four years as our first line winger,” Bob Gaudet, Stempniak’s coach at Dartmouth, tells SI.com. “He killed penalties, played on the power play. A guy who was very reliable. Below the tops of the circles, he was just fabulous.”
Despite that, Stempniak lasted until the fifth round of the 2003 NHL draft before he was taken 148th by the St. Louis Blues. He scored 27 goals in 2006-07, his second season with them. Then his vagabond life began. Three years in St. Louis. Two in Toronto. Two in Phoenix. Three in Calgary. Half seasons each in Pittsburgh, New York, Winnipeg, New Jersey and now here he is in Boston.
“This is a guy that’s been underappreciated,” says Gaudet.
After Stempniak scored 15 goals between the Rangers and Jets last season, no one was willing to take a flyer on the 33-year-old. He tried out with the Bruins during training camp but failed to catch on before he was given a PTO by the Devils, who signed him for one year at $850,000. He actually thought he'd stick around a while in New Jersey.
“I thought it could be,” he says. “I was hoping that was going to be a long term fit.”
On the ice, Stempniak doesn’t mind the movement. He relishes the new experiences. He enjoys a chance to move from a bottom-feeder to a contender. He’s lived in cities he never thought he would see. He learned from his first trade, from St. Louis to Toronto in 2008, to stay true to himself. Talk on the ice more. Get to know the guys off it. Play to his identity. Each time he moves on it becomes a bit easier.
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Yet his roulette of NHL destinations becomes harder in some respects with each turn. He FaceTimes with his girls. Soon they’ll start to talk more, which will make the distance even harder. But Boston might be his lucky draw. He's found his place on the right side of a pretty talented pair—Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand—chipping in six points in his first 10 games.
“Those guys are great players having unbelievable years,” he says. “It’s been fun.”
And the move has another benefit. With Stempniak just two-and-a-half hours away from Dartmouth’s Hanover, N.H., campus, Gaudet gets a chance to see his prized pupil play.
“I’m a big Bruins fan,” Gaudet says. “It’s great to see him wearing the black and gold. I think it’s awesome.”
Maybe one of the NHL's wanderers will be allowed to put roots down near where it all started for him. But don't bet on it.