Reliable Stempniak back for the Hurricanes

Two injuries and 43 missed games later, veteran winger already contributing

Hurricanes forward Lee Stempniak has overcome two injuries to return to the ice. (Raj Mehta / USA TODAY Sports)

RALEIGH — Lee Stempniak is often the first name mentioned when discussing well-traveled NHL players. It’s deserved — Carolina is the 10th stop of the West Seneca, N.Y., native’s 13-year, nearly 900-game career.

What’s not mentioned enough is Stempniak’s durability and consistency. Four times he’s played a full 82-game schedule — including last year, his first with the Hurricanes on a two-year contract he signed during the 2016 offseason — and he’s averaged 74 games played since his first full season in 2006-07, a number brought down by two years in Calgary when he totaled just 108 games. Along the way, he’s been counted on as a consistent 40-point secondary scorer.

That Stempniak, 35 on Feb. 4, could be relied on to both play and produce year after year, in city after city, made the injuries that cost him the first 43 games of the 2017-18 season that much more frustrating.

“It’s hard because you train all summer and you’re ready, and you get hurt in training camp and then come back from that,” Stempniak said. “I felt like I was close, and I got hurt again.”

Stempniak battled a lower body injury throughout training camp and into the start of the season before accepting a conditioning assignment to the Charlotte Checkers. He suited up Nov. 10 in Utica, N.Y., for his first AHL game since April 24, 2006.

On his first shift, he took a hit away from the puck and knew something wasn’t right.

“It was a fluke,” Stempniak said. “I didn’t have the puck, was turning and someone just sort of popped me. Completely unexpected, didn’t have the puck and just something felt off. I played the rest of that shift, played another shift and just felt like I had no strength.”

The diagnosis: A broken collarbone.

Instead of missing just the first month of the season, Stempniak was shelved even longer with a completely new injury.

“I think they thought it was more minor at first, at least in Utica; thought it was going to be a three- to 10-day issue,” he said. “I don’t know how long I was out — maybe 10 weeks. So that part was frustrating for sure. You try not to get too down on that, let that get you down on life. (Just) try to use the time wisely to make sure when I came back I was feeling good.”

Stempniak finally returned to the lineup Jan. 12 for Game 44 of the season, Carolina’s heartbreaking 4-3 loss at home to Washington. By the third period, Stempniak said, he felt like his old self.

In a 4-1 loss to Calgary two nights later, Stempniak was the Hurricanes’ lone goal scorer in an otherwise dismal effort.

Hurricanes coach Bill Peters credited Stempniak for putting in the hard work needed to come back from the two injuries and jump into the playoff push midseason.

“The reports back, the two from our strength coach and our assistant coaches, is that this guy has put in some serious time here, and he’s done a good job,” Peters said. “He looks quicker, to be honest with you. I think he’s picked up a little bit of a half step, maybe a step.”

Stempniak didn’t say he is faster, but he does feel good on the ice.

“I think that a lot of credit goes to (Hurricanes strength coach) Bill Burniston,” Stempniak said. “We spent a lot of time together. He spoke to my trainer in Toronto, Matt Nichol, and devised a plan to use the time not just for conditioning and not just to rehab, but to try and target lower body strength, explosiveness —just using the time wisely so when you come back you’re the best version of yourself you can be.

“Then when I got on the ice, I’ve been skating a lot with (Hurricanes assistant coach) Rod (Brind’Amour), a lot of game situations, a lot of quick feet things … rather than just the traditional conditioning skate, and I think those all contributed to feeling good on the ice.”

Heading into Tuesday night’s game in Pittsburgh, Stempniak had two points in four games — just what you’d expect from a guy who’s averaged 0.53 points per game in his NHL career.

If he can bring that consistency the rest of the way, perhaps he can help the Hurricanes snap their eight-season playoff drought.

If not, some GM in an 11th city would know what they were getting at the trade deadline.