Lee Stempniak’s career spanned almost 15 years in the NHL. He played for 10 teams, posted 469 points in 911 regular-season games, and figured one day his economics degree from Dartmouth (Class of 2005) would come in handy.
“Had I played only one or two years in the league, I probably would have used my degree in a more traditional job,” mused Stempniak, hired this past week by the Arizona Coyotes in a newly-created analytics role. “But as I played, I gained such an appreciation for all the experience of learning, from different coaches and different players … 10 teams, 12 coaches … I feel that’s a huge asset for me and where I can add a lot of value.”
Stempniak, who’ll turn 38 this Thursday, was hired as the Coyotes’ first hockey data strategist. The job, which he’ll be able to perform full time from his home in the Boston suburbs, will be acting hand in hand with Matt Perri, the club’s director of analytics. Stempniak will interpret the raw numbers through the eye of an ex-player and then share his thoughts across the organization, from the coach-player side, as well as throughout hockey ops, scouting, management, and ownership, even the Zamboni driver if that’s where the numbers go.
“It’s essentially serving as the filter, or the liaison and link between hockey operations and analytics,” he said. “It’s really intriguing to me.”
It’s a position new to the NHL, but one that other sports, particularly Major League Baseball, increasingly have utilized in recent years. Hockey has become more numbers aware over the last 8-10 seasons, and it was during his three-year stop in Calgary (2011-14) when Stempniak began to appreciate what role analytics can play for players and throughout an organization.
Chris Snow, a former Globe sportswriter, at the time was fairly new to the Flames organization, hired after his years with the Minnesota Wild to found Calgary’s analytics department.
“Chris printed out where I took all my shots from one season,” recalled Stempniak, a career right winger. “It showed where I scored my goals from and compared it to other players. It was very basic but also very eye-opening for me to see that there were definitely patterns to where I tended to get the puck and shoot it.”
Snow in those days was among a tiny number of employees at the NHL level working at the vanguard of implementing and embracing analytics departments. In the years since, noted Stempniak, the field has exploded, with teams across the league now eagerly embracing analytics, while at the same time still trying to figure out what they all mean, how best to use them.
“I believe you’ll see more and more people like Lee come into the league, the way they have in other leagues, baseball especially,” noted Snow, reached this past week in Calgary.
The depth of the data, said Snow, has driven a demand around the league for full data departments, as opposed to, say, a single data analyst, tucked in a storage closet, running numbers on his laptop.
“And with that data comes a responsibility to maximize it,” added Snow. “You’ll see a need for curious and bright former players to sift through all of this, ask questions, and effectively bridge the data people to the coaching staff and players.”
Voila, Stempniak, proud son of West Seneca, N.Y. He met new Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong years ago, when Armstrong was a scout with St. Louis and Stempniak a Blues rookie (drafted after his sophomore year at Dartmouth). It was Brian Daccord, newly named Armstrong’s special assistant, who first approached Stempniak about the gig.
“I played in Arizona [2010-11], and when I played there, it was owned by the NHL and it was just different,” recalled Stempniak. “And now I see them as an up-and-coming team with a bright future with Alex Meruelo as the owner and Xavier Gutierrez [CEO/president] and Bill … they are looking to build a winning organization on and off the ice.”
What caught Stempniak’s eyes most, he said, was the club’s stated commitment to analytics, research, development, and innovation.
“It feels like a perfect spot for me,” he added. “I can touch on a lot of those things, use my knowledge as a player, playing for different coaches, understanding the game, while learning the analytics side and offering feedback both ways. It’s essentially making hockey operations and analytics work in synch.”
Before the offer came along, Stempniak, who retired after the 2018-19 season, contemplated landing a player-development role with an NHL team. His final playing days were with the Bruins, with whom he spent that last season on a one-man taxi squad, staying in shape in case the Bruins needed him down the stretch. He played two games in the middle of the season but did not dress for the playoff run, which the Bruins rode to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
“If you told me I could play in the NHL tomorrow, of course I’d want to do it,” said Stempniak. “But I’m also realistic. The year I practiced with the Bruins, that was me, like, giving it my last shot. I was injured the year before with Carolina, didn’t play [with Boston] until January. And if it was going to be the end I wanted to a.) try to win a Stanley Cup and b.) just give it my best shot to know I had no regrets. And that’s what I did. I had a good training camp, stuck around, and it just wasn’t meant to be. No regrets looking back at my career and I’m really content with how it all went.”
Meanwhile, while learning how all the numbers add up for the Coyotes, Stempniak is also a volunteer hockey coach at the Rivers School in Weston. He’s also enjoying the role of dad, teaching his twin 6-year-old daughters how to play the sport that he turned into a fruitful playing career and now one that, like the numbers, could run to infinity.
Hall can’t wait on Yale anymore
Prospect Curtis Hall hit the ice with the AHL Bruins for his first practice this past week, only two days after formally severing ties at Yale and turning pro on a one-year deal with the WannaBs.
Hall, a 6-foot-3-inch, 212-pound center, was midway through his academic junior year at New Haven. With the Ivy League schools sitting out the season due to the pandemic, he feared what it might mean for his career development if COVID-19 were to linger and the Ivies decide to scratch the 2021-22 season.
“To do another year, or however long,” mused Hall, “it would feel like a different lifetime.”
The Bruins selected Hall, a righthanded shot, with the 119th pick in the 2018 draft, just prior to his heading to Yale. After a slightly disappointing first year, he doubled his production as a sophomore (28 games, 27 points) and was looking forward to continuing the progress while working toward his degree in political science.
When he reported to campus in the fall, noted Hall, there were “murmurings” that the season could be lost, but he and his teammates remained hopeful that the pandemic would ease, the season would open. The majority of college hockey programs around the country were moving forward, albeit with fingers crossed.
“We were going through these phases of practicing where we would go through two weeks of [off-ice training],” recalled Hall. “Then for a while we were able to skate on the ice for only 10 minutes and that was just to do conditioning. Then we would get set back and set back, and then a little before Thanksgiving the athletic department put all of the fall and winter athletes on a Zoom and said, ‘You guys aren’t playing.’ ”
Within only a couple of weeks, a pair of defensemen left Yale. Senior Phil Kemp, a seventh-round pick by the Oilers in 2017, signed an entry-level contract with Edmonton and was loaned to a Swedish team (Vasby). Kemp was going to captain the 2020-21 Bulldogs. Junior Jack St. Ivany, a Flyers pick in 2018, transferred to Boston College.
Hall headed home at Thanksgiving break to the Cleveland suburbs and weighed whether to return, transfer, or finally launch his pro career. In the end, he chose to preserve the prospect of getting an Ivy League diploma — he plans to keep up his studies — and start life as a Bruin.
“I really didn’t want to sit around another six months and not play,” he said. “To this point it’s already been a year since I played my last game. I didn’t want to wait till next fall, and I mean, there’s no guarantee that we’d even have a season next fall — I never thought we’d get canceled this year and you never really know how it’s going to be however months down the road. Also seeing the rest of college hockey, or at least the majority of them, continuing their seasons … I just felt I could make the turn.”
By midweek, Hall was on the ice for his first workout with some 20 other WannaBs in Pawtucket, where the AHL club is using Lynch Arena in Pawtucket while the Dunkin’ Donuts Center serves as Providence’s COVID-19 headquarters (for testing and vaccination). Jay Leach’s charges will play exhibition games vs. Hartford Sunday and Monday, then launch the abbreviated season Friday vs. Bridgeport (1 p.m. faceoff at the New England Sports Center in Marlborough).
The Bulldogs were in the second round of the ECAC playoffs when Hall’s season ended in March. Ten months later, even though he worked out extensively over the summer back home, Day 1 as a pro felt a bit strange.
“The first day was drills, systematics, which was great for me because I don’t have a clue quite yet,” said Hall, speaking by telephone shortly after wrapping up the workout. “I think it was a great skate for me to get adjusted. I hadn’t seen lines being drawn on a board for a while, going through systems and stuff. So it definitely threw me a little bit, but I couldn’t be more excited to get back into it.”
Rutherford exit a real shocker
Stunning development Wednesday in Pittsburgh, where GM Jim Rutherford abruptly packed bags and, like Elvis, left … the … building (to steal one from longtime Penguins announcer Mike Lange).
Rutherford’s departing words, through various media contacts, hinted at some level of acrimony or dissatisfaction. Rutherford to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun when asked why he was leaving: “I don’t think it serves anybody well. I’ve been treated first-class here and I really appreciate and respect what they’ve done for me. That’s the way I want to leave the Penguins.”
Rutherford, 71, was working with an expiring contract, leaving open speculation that he resigned over a money/extension issue. All clubs are feeling the financial pinch of COVID-19 with arenas left empty since the start of March and revenue streams now barely a trickle.
Meanwhile, with lieutenant Patrik Allvin minding the store as interim GM, the search began for a new boss. Among the initial suspects: Jason Botterill, who left the Pittsburgh front office for a short, fruitless run as Sabres GM, and Peter Chiarelli, who lasted in Boston nearly a decade and then just shy of another four years in Edmonton before his dismissal in January 2019.
Current GMs Bill Guerin (Wild) and Tom Fitzgerald (New Jersey), both former Bruins, made their management bones in the Pittsburgh front office as assistant GMs.
Rutherford, who won two Cups in Pittsburgh and another previously with Carolina, said he’ll decide in the weeks ahead if he wants to retire or work for another team. His departure, though shocking, was in keeping with his bold managerial nature.
He was known for aggressive moves to acquire playing talent, including the one in the summer of 1994 when, as the Whalers’ GM, he surrendered three first-round picks to Boston for the rights to restricted free agent Glen Wesley.
The Bruins netted defensemen Kyle McLaren (1995) and Johnathan Aitken (1996), and forward Sergei Samsonov (1997). None of those three finished their careers in Boston. Wesley retired as a Hurricane in 2008 with 1,457 games on his résumé.
The most successful blue liner in the 1996 draft: Zdeno Chara, who went No. 56 overall to the Islanders. Big Z was the 22nd defenseman chosen that year.
Blackwell again involved in highlight
Keen-eyed Jim Clark, valuable utilityman in the Globe sports department, noted that it was ex-Harvard forward Colin Blackwell who assisted Thursday night on career goal No. 1 by the Rangers’ Alexis Lafreniere, the top pick in the 2020 draft.
After bolting into the zone with a Sabres turnover, a streaking Blackwell dished left for Lafreniere’s short-range one-timer in overtime. A Buffalo defenseman promptly swept the puck to the sideboards in frustration.
Blackwell, sensing the significance of the moment for Lafreniere, dashed to retrieve the puck for the rookie winger’s trophy case.
Not the first time, noted Clark, that Blackwell has played the role of curator sur glace. In 2011, with Blackwell in the St. John’s Prep lineup, Brendan Collier potted the winner for Malden Catholic in the Super 8 title game at the Garden. Despite his disappointment in the moment, Blackwell retrieved the puck and tossed it to the dad of one of Collier’s teammates, knowing that Collier would want it for his collection.
Blackwell, once a San Jose draft pick (No. 194, 2011), was a roster fill-in the last couple of seasons with Nashville. He signed as a free agent with the Blueshirts in October and carried a 1-2—3 line into this weekend’s action and may just have a post-career internship awaiting him up the street at the Guggenheim.
Forever searching the globe for good hockey stories found in faraway places, your faithful puck chronicler this week brings you another ex-Yalie, Brian O’Neill, toiling these days in Finland. Yale Class of 2012, the 32-year-old O’Neill went into the weekend as the leading US-born scorer in the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League. The plucky 5-foot-8 right winger, born in Yardley, Pa., played five AHL seasons after his New Haven years and had a brief dance (22 games) with the Devils in 2015-16. He is now in his fifth season with KHL Jokerit Helsinki. O’Neill’s line through Friday’s games: 9-34—43 in 43 games, 11th in league scoring, 15 points off the pace set by Dynamo’s Vadim Shipachyov. Oshawa, Ontario-born Justin Danforth is fifth in KHL scoring (19-29—48) and the top-ranked North American. Danforth, 27, played four seasons at Sacred Heart University (Class of 2017) in Fairfield, Conn., then began playing in Europe after two seasons of minor pro in the US … Finally, another Mike Lange favorite play-by-play call in the Penguins’ broadcast booth: “Scratch my back with a hacksaw!” For those, you know, special celebratory moments.