BRIGHTON, Mass – It was a little surprising when there were no veteran tryouts originally announced for the Bruins training camp roster a couple of weeks ago. That changed quickly when the two groups were split into those 23 players making the trip to China and those sticking behind in Boston, as the B’s also announced that veteran NHL forwards Daniel Winnik and Lee Stempniak would be in camp with the Black and Gold.
Both players have had long, solid NHL careers with a litany of teams after starring for New England college hockey programs, Stempniak with Dartmouth and Winnik with UNH, and both players are now veterans that will need to sing for their NHL supper in training camp. The 35-year-old Stempniak is obviously a familiar face having played for the Black and Gold a couple of seasons ago, and being a regular captain’s practice attendee given his permanent Boston residence.
Stempniak is coming off a tough season where injuries limited him to just 37 games with the Carolina Hurricanes with three goals and nine points, and the way things played out made things even more difficult. Stempniak was injured in training camp and then fractured his collarbone just minutes into his first game on a rehab stint, and that put him in futile catch-up mode for the rest of the season.
Given the way things ended for Stempniak last year it’s easy to see why he’s on a PTO looking for a job this season, but Stempniak is just happy to be healthy and making his preseason debut on Tuesday night for the Bruins.
“Last year was a tough one for me,” admitted Stempniak. “I got hurt in camp, got injured when I came back for rehab and didn’t even get into a game with Carolina until the middle of January. I just never felt like I was able to catch up to where everybody else was at that point, and you really just don’t feel like a part of the team in the first few months of the season when you’re coming back from injuries.
“I feel good now and last season is behind me now, so I come in here with a good chance to show what I can do. That’s all you can really ask for.”
Given his experience playing the right wing with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand during his last stint with the B’s, Stempniak provides Boston with a steady, solid and productive alternative if all of their young options aren’t ready for prime time. It may very well not play out that way for Stempniak with players like Ryan Donato and Danton Heinen off to strong starts, but the comfortable situation with Boston should put the veteran in a good spot to show other NHL teams what he can do as well.
“It’s great to be in a place where you know the people in the organization and there’s plenty of familiarity with the players,” said Stempniak. “There’s the added benefit of living here as well, so this was just a really good fit for me when I was looking for a spot in a training camp. Given how last season went I’m not all that surprised to be coming in on a PTO, and now it’s just about working hard and competing for a job.”
It’s a bit of a different story for Winnik, who is coming off a solid season as a bottom-6 forward with the Minnesota Wild and showed he can still play at a high level last season. The 33-year-old had six goals and 23 points in 81 games, had a plus-5 rating and provided the versatility of playing both left wing and center in a third or fourth line role. He’s had to go the PTO route a couple of times in recent seasons, so it wasn’t a big shock to come to Boston competing for an energy line spot with guys like Noel Acciari, Sean Kuraly, Chris Wagner, Joakim Nordstrom and others that already hold guaranteed NHL deals with the Black and Gold.
Winnik had a decent debut with the B’s on Sunday afternoon when he finished with a couple of shots on net, won more than 50 percent of his draws and showed his penalty kill abilities while playing with the B’s group that stayed behind in Boston.
“Last year I was on a PTO, so it’s similar to that. But even in year’s past I feel like I’ve always had to establish myself on the roster no matter how firm I might be set by a contract. There were always young guys trying to take my position,” said Winnik. “Signing with the Bruins would obviously be the best case for me. We’ll see how it goes. I thought I was off to a good start in that last game.
“I think it’s the way the league is going that PTO’s are just becoming more popular. I don’t know how many guys are on them this season, but in year’s past there have been tons of guys in camps on PTO’s, and they’re all well-established guys that are third or fourth line players like myself. For older guys it’s harder to get jobs these days.”
The bottom line is this for both veteran players: It’s going to take injuries and under-performance from younger players to open up an NHL roster spot for either Stempniak or Winnik to start the regular season.