Lee Stempniak might have said it best as the media crowded around him at Warrior Ice Arena Saturday morning.
“It’s been a really strange year.”
Joining the Bruins on a professional tryout contract back in September during training camp, the veteran winger was looking to get back on track after being limited to 37 games with Carolina in 2017-18 due to injury.
When a roster spot wasn’t guaranteed for the forward out of camp, however, Stempniak didn’t pack his bags and head home. Rather, he was a constant presence at Bruins practices, skating with the rest of the club — sans contract — in order to keep his conditioning in check and wait for the right opportunity to fall his way.
“I felt like I had a good training camp and obviously it’s a good team and it didn’t work out,” Stempniak said. “We both decided for me to stick around and skate and it went on longer than I anticipated. Deep down, I just wanted an opportunity.”
For the next five months, Stempniak continued to put in work at Warrior — waiting in anticipation for a potential offer to drop. It eventually arrived on Feb. 24, with Boston extending a deal for the remainder of the 2018-19 season.
After finding his legs through seven games down in Providence, Stempniak is set to make his season debut up in Boston on Saturday, skating in a top-six role on David Krejci’s line for a matchup against the Ottawa Senators.
“I’ve only played seven games this year, but I felt like I’ve played pretty well and gotten more comfortable and my timing has come along,” Stempniak said. “It’s exciting. It’s something I worked really hard for, something I take a lot of pride in achieving. ... It’s certainly rewarding for the work I’ve put in and I’m appreciative of the opportunity. It’s an exciting team to join. Points in 18 straight games and a team that’s capable of winning the Stanley Cup. As a player, especially one that hasn’t won and is getting older, it’s a really exciting team to join.”
Stempniak’s promotion was due in large part to the current state of Boston’s top-six corps, with David Pastrnak (thumb surgery), Marcus Johansson (lung contusion) and Jake DeBrusk (lower-body injury) all still sidelined with various ailments.
It is unlikely that any of those three wingers will be ready to go for Sunday’s road matchup against the Penguins, with Bruce Cassidy noting that DeBrusk has a chance of joining the club for the team’s three-game road trip.
“Johansson is going to get re-evaluated Tuesday, so he will not travel,” Cassidy said. “(Kevan) Miller and Pastrnak won’t — they’ll skate here. Pasta will. Kevan, I’m not sure when he’s back skating. Jake is the one I’m not sure on, because he didn’t skate today. He’s not playing tonight, not tomorrow if he didn’t skate today, unless there’s something miraculous. He may travel, because he’s the closest to returning to the lineup, from my understanding.”
Stempniak has been steady down in the AHL ranks, tallying two goals and posting five total points during his short stint down with Providence, but how exactly will that translate up to the NHL?