Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - For a team sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings the Pittsburgh Penguins have certainly flown under the radar in 2013-14.
Unlike last season when the Penguins made a big splash at the trade deadline, Pittsburgh opted to keep a low profile this time around. The Penguins made moves for depth instead, picking up forwards Marcel Goc and Lee Stempniak for a handful of draft picks.
While the moves were categorized as safe at the time, the trade for Stempniak is beginning to look like a stroke of genius by Penguins general manager Ray Shero.
It's obviously been a small sample size for Stempniak, but he has managed to record three assists in his first four games with the Penguins, playing an important role as the right winger on Pittsburgh's top line with superstar centerman Sidney Crosby and left wing Chris Kunitz.
Of course, Crosby and Kunitz already had the chemistry thing down pat. The duo are leading Pittsburgh with 31 goals apiece this season and they also formed two-thirds of a line for Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics, helping the Canadians win a second straight gold medal at the Winter Games.
The main role for a right winger joining the successful Crosby-Kunitz duo is to not slow them down. Stempniak has managed to do that and then some by fitting in seamlessly. With Crosby and Kunitz's former linemate Pascal Dupuis expected to miss the rest of the season, the Pens' newest left winger will be given every opportunity to prove his great start in Pittsburgh is more than just beginner's luck.
"It's been a pretty quick learning-by-fire here," Stempniak recently told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "The big thing is just trying to make sure I'm playing my game, but, at the same time, complement my linemates. Part of that is skating and trying to shoot the puck, hang onto the puck in the offensive zone. It's coming a bit more quickly now."
The main problem Stempniak has encountered is resisting the instinct to constantly feed the puck to Crosby. That's not an easy task considering the Penguins captain is leading the NHL with 88 points and well on his way to a scoring title.
"Part of if for me is trying not to force the puck to Sid too much," said Stempniak. "I think the first couple of games I'd get it and try and throw it to him. He's covered sometimes. He's a great player, but it's not always the right play to give it to him."
Crosby and fellow superstar center Evgeni Malkin were the biggest factors for Pittsburgh when it won a Stanley Cup in 2009, and the arrival of Stempniak doesn't change that. But, finding the right mix of role players to surround those studs is always a work in progress for Shero.
Last spring, the Pens GM acquired several big-name players before the trade deadline, bringing in Jarome Iginla, Jussi Jokinen, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray to try and help deliver the franchise's second Stanley Cup of the Crosby era.
It didn't work, of course, as the Pens flamed out in the Eastern Conference finals, getting swept by the Boston Bruins. Flash forward to the present and only Jokinen remains in Pittsburgh, while Iginla, Morrow and Murray were allowed to walk via free agency after their brief run in the Steel City earned mixed reviews.
In light of last year's trades, which were high-profile but ultimately low- impact moves, it was odd to see Shero criticized a bit for not taking a more aggressive approach to the deadline in 2014. He did his best to land Vancouver centerman Ryan Kesler, but in the end no deal could be made.
Pittsburgh has had a "Stanley Cup or bust" mentality in recent years and obviously Stempniak managing to fit in well at the start doesn't guarantee this season will end in glory. The Pens still have depth questions on defense (especially with Kris Letang's status for the rest of the season up in the air) and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's recent playoff performances do not inspire confidence.
With everybody attempting to pull off a game-changing trade at the deadline, sometimes it's the little move that have the biggest impact. Stempniak only cost Pittsburgh a third-round pick but he's already fitting in better than Iginla or Morrow ever did.
Of course, like every trade made around the deadline the real evaluation comes at the end of the season. For Shero and the Pens, winning it all is the only way to satisfy the lofty expectations.
If Stempniak's start with Pittsburgh is more than a mirage, another championship parade could hit the Steel City come June.