Stempniak as unlikely a story as the Devils themselves

Mike Babcock got the big win in his 1000th game, and when asked if he had another 1000 in him, Babcock deadpanned that he plans to stay with the Leafs for two years after his contract expires in seven, 'because they'll be that good.'

TORONTO – A more anonymous group of NHLers would be tough to find. At least occupying the same dressing room.

The average hockey fan would struggle to name more than five players if asked to list the current members of the New Jersey Devils – and that’s probably being charitable.

Yet there were the Devils Friday morning, straddling the playoff line in the Eastern Conference. Right in the thick of the race. The fact they’re doing it 50-plus games into a year of transition isn’t an accomplishment per se, but it has to go down as one of the more surprising stories this season.

And in the eyes of first-year general manager Ray Shero, it’s all gravy from here.

“We’re getting some real games of substance, which some of our players have never been through before,” Shero said before Thursday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Maple Leafs. “I think the positive is the accountability comes into play for players and being prepared to play. These are important games. …

“To go out if you’re 11 points out of a playoff spot in March, those aren’t that hard to play.”

There was always going to be a serious element of the unknown to this Devils season, with the organization having undergone a seismic shift over the summer. First Shero replaced Lou Lamoriello as GM in May, and then Lamoriello left Newark for Toronto after nearly three decades in charge.

His tenure was not defined just by its length, or even the three Stanley Cup banners hanging at Prudential Center. Lamoriello is remembered for the meticulous way he went about establishing a distinct culture for the entire franchise.

That includes his famously strict set of rules – yes, no facial hair for players – and under Shero, those policies have largely been relaxed.

“I can’t do the same thing as Lou; no different than Jim Rutherford can with me in Pittsburgh,” Shero explained. “Everybody’s different, but Lou had been here for so long and had certainly a way of doing things. The ‘Devil Way.’ ... If things are really, really buttoned up it’s easy to kind of let that go a bit.

“But I know one thing: It’s a lot easier to do it that way than to go to a situation where things are all over the place. That was a positive; the discipline that Lou had throughout the organization.”

When new head coach John Hynes surveyed the situation he was entering, he liked what he saw defensively. And the Devils have continued to be an extremely stingy team to play against this season.

If anything, he’s tried to encourage some of his players to identify the situations where they can open things up a bit and he ultimately hopes to see the Devils shed the label of being a trap team. They certainly aren’t playing that way.

But until they make up the talent gap, the coach is preaching the importance of structure and trying to keep everyone focused on the small details, rather than the playoff chase that is starting to come into focus.

“We’re aware of where it is, but I still think everything’s so congested,” said Hynes. “I think when you focus on those things it can bring angst, it takes away from what your process is going to be. The reason why we’re in the situation we’re in is because our every day process has been good.

“If we do the right things enough of the time then hopefully the results continue to come.”

Their standing alongside Pittsburgh for the final wild-card spot – albeit with two more games played – is a testament to the goaltending of Cory Schneider, but that doesn’t tell the whole story here. Schneider was tremendous last year too, and New Jersey missed the playoffs by 20 points.

The Devils are a relatively low-event team, still prone to the 2-1 final, but the winds of change are blowing. They’re clinging to some old traits while trying to establish new ones.

Journeyman Lee Stempniak, signed on the eve of the season after attending training camp on a tryout, currently shares the team lead in points with the injured Mike Cammalleri.

Bringing him in was a savvy move by Shero – as was acquiring 20-goal man Kyle Palmieri in a trade with Anaheim at the draft – as this group needs every goal it can get. Depending on how things go in the next few weeks, the GM mused that he might be in a position to add a bit more at the Feb. 29 trade deadline.

Stempniak has bounced from Calgary to Pittsburgh to the Rangers to Winnipeg to New Jersey in the last three years alone. He’s become Mr. Everything for the Devils.

“Without a guy like him it would be much more difficult to be where we are this year,” said Shero. “He can play in any situation: Last minute of the game protecting a lead, last minute down a goal, penalty killing, power play, 4-on-4, 3-on-3.

“Really he’s played everything but goal.”

His story is as good as it is unlikely. Just like the team he plays for.