TORONTO — Lee Stempniak is a well-conditioned athlete who has survived several NHL seasons, so how hard could Pilates be?
Humbling, it turned out.
“I thought it was going to be so easy,” the New Jersey Devils winger said, “and then I was gassed after an hour.”
Pilates was part of a revamped off-season routine that helped Stempniak progress from a precarious professional tryout to leading the Devils in scoring with perhaps the finest season of his 10-year career.
Stempniak, who celebrated his 33rd birthday on Thursday, is on pace for a career-high of more than 60 points, doing so on a bargain one-year contract worth US$850,000. He didn’t get that contract until the early days of October, two weeks after he first landed with the Devils on a tryout.
His unlikely success comes at a time when the league is trending younger. It’s becoming increasingly rare for players his age to contribute heavily – 43-year-old Florida forward Jaromir Jagr notwithstanding – and rarer still for someone his age to be enjoying a career year.
Stempniak, a fifth round pick of the St. Louis Blues in 2003 who topped out at 52 points in his second NHL season, describes this year as his best in terms of consistency. He hasn’t gone more than two games without registering at least a point.
He points to training patterns last summer as one of the factors for his breakout.
Stempniak went back to work with Matt Nichol, formerly the Toronto Maple Leafs strength coach and a co-founder of Biosteel, the increasingly popular nutrition product line. Nichols advised Stempniak to take a “less is more” approach to training and to strive for efficiency above all.
“You didn’t need to train as hard as you get older, you need to train a little bit smarter,” Stempniak said. “For me a big emphasis was on quickness and explosiveness and just try and keep up your ability to skate. I think that’s a big thing because the game’s getting so fast now that if you can skate it’s a huge asset.”
Stempniak, at Nichols’ behest, tried pilates – which aims to strengthen the core – and focused on saving some energy for the grind of an 82-game season as opposed to burning out with overly strenuous workouts in the summer months.
Tied for the Devils team lead with 38 points entering play on Thursday, Stempniak wanted to make sure he had enough gas to play effectively throughout the season. He found himself worn down and hitting a wall at various points in seasons past.
“The big change for me I think is I feel fresher longer,” said Stempniak, third on the Devils with 15 goals.
Beyond his training, Stempniak is also getting opportunities. He played around 13 minutes in stints with the Rangers and Jets last season but is averaging nearly 19 minutes for the Devils, including regular time on both the penalty kill and power-play.
He was enthused to get a fresh start with New Jersey, which entered the season with a new general manager in Ray Shero and new coach in Jon Hynes.
A willingness to hold the puck longer and make plays has also paid dividends.
“I find sometimes you get the puck and you move it a little too early and then you watch it on video and realize you have more time to make a play,” he said.
It’s all part in parcel in why Stempniak has gone from a PTO in his 30s to one of the most important players for a Devils squad that’s hanging just outside a playoff spot.
Asked if he could have predicted this kind of success, Stempniak said: “To this extent, maybe not.”