Small Deals, Big Difference: Maple Leafs Should Learn From Stempniak Trade

Jon Neely@@iamjonneelyAnalyst IMarch 21, 2010

GLENDALE, AZ - MARCH 20:  Lee Stempniak #22 of the Phoenix Coyotes celebrates with teammates on the bench after scoring a third period goal against the Chicago Blackhawks during the NHL game at Arena on March 20, 2010 in Glendale, Arizona.  The Coyotes defeated the Blackhawks 5-4 in an overtime shootout.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

He played 123 games as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs and on March 3, as part of the team's rebuilding project, Lee Stempniak was dealt to the Phoenix Coyotes.

It was a trade that was seen as simply ridding of a chunk of salary for one team, while improving the depth of another.

He scored 25 goals in two seasons in Toronto and was largely seen as a disappointment as the final acquisition made by former GM Cliff Fletcher before he handed his duties over to current GM Brian Burke.

In return the Leafs received defenseman Matt Jones and fourth- and seventh-round picks in this year's draft. Jones had one goal and 11 points in 106 games with the Coyotes.

In giving up a rarely-used defender and two late picks, the Coyotes acquired a feisty forward capable of chipping offensively for essentially nothing.

And that trade for nothing has turned out to be the most important one made before the NHL trade deadline so far.

Since arriving in sunny Arizona, Stempniak has scored nine goals and 11 points in just nine games and is the league's hottest player. With Stempniak and several other new players, the Coyotes are not only better, but also tied for top spot in the Western Conference following Sunday's shootout win.

The team has lost only once since Stempniak's arrival and is on a nine-game winning streak, and all because of a few solid additions, particularly the former Leaf.

It's the kind of trade that seemed minor at the time, but when the player puts on that new jersey and gets a fresh start under the lights of a different city, it can be all he needs to step up his game to a level his old team never saw.

This is the case for Stempniak and the Coyotes. And this is the sort of trade the Leafs need to start considering once the playoffs are over.

Seeing a team benefit from a trade with Toronto, for a player who was underperforming for the Leafs, is a story that is all too familiar with the team.

And with Burke looking to bolster the forward core in the offseason, and the lack of big-name free agents available, it could be one of these "minor" trades that makes a big difference for this club.

Of course, expecting Stempniak to keep up this pace throughout the playoffs would be ridiculous, but the fact that he's playing at such a high level is a welcome bonus for a club looking to make a deep playoff run.

Sometimes all you need is a little change before your team can take a big step forward.

Sure, there is a chance that the minor deals turn out to be busts, as is the case with any trade, but on a team that is starting to come together with a solid defense, reliable goaltending, and a core of young players proving they belong in the NHL, it may not be a big-time forward needed to take Toronto back to the playoffs.

Heck, they might not have a choice.

So when the time comes for Burke to start adding to this team in the summer, if the chance at another star forward to play alongside Phil Kessel comes along, he should jump at it. But whether that happens or not is yet to be seen, so when it comes to filling the other holes on the Leafs, he simply needs to look at a trade he already made.

Phoenix has struck gold with its newest player. It's up to Burke to try to do the same by adding something for nothing to a team that could use a guy like Stempniak.

Well, you know what I mean.