Who will be this season’s unsung trade deadline hero?

Matt Larkin
Stempniak

Flash back to last year’s trade deadline for a moment. It paled in comparison to the hoopla we’ve witnessed over the last week, but still featured a few significant deals designed to boost contenders’ Cup hopes. Boston brought in Jaromir Jagr. In the weeks leading up to the deadline, Pittsburgh rented Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow.

In the end, though, a seemingly insignificant trade proved the most influential on the playoff picture:

Chicago acquires center Michal Handzus from the San Jose Sharks for a 2013 fourth-round pick.

The Blackhawks had Jonathan Toews as an elite top pivot and David Bolland as a championship-caliber third-liner. But with Marcus Kruger still maturing, Chicago was starved for a bona fide No. 2 center. Handzus didn’t fit the bill on paper as a broken-down 36-year-old, but somehow inherited the role for the playoffs. He averaged 16 minutes a game and played a key two-way role en route to a Stanley Cup, amassing 11 points in 23 games. He did it all with a broken wrist and torn MCL, to boot. Handzus has struggled this year, but no one can take away how crucial of an acquisition he was last season.

Flash to the present. Let’s sweep aside Martin St-Louis, Thomas Vanek and the other big names for a second. Who is this year’s version of the sneaky Handzus acquisition? Let’s look at a few candidates.

Lee Stempniak, right winger (acquired by Pittsburgh Penguins)

Stempniak isn’t the most popular player in cities he used to play in – Leaf fans will always remember him as the guy they got for Alexander Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo – but he can make an impact as a top-six forward in Pittsburgh. With Pascal Dupuis and Beau Bennett out long-term, Stempniak has an excellent shot to play regularly with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin and should see time on at least the No. 2 power play unit. He’s never had teammates of this caliber passing him the puck.

And while Stempniak didn’t light it up in Calgary, he’s been a goal scorer in the past. He’s finished with double-digit totals 10 times in his career and 27 or more twice. Most notably, the last time he was traded at the deadline, he went nuts. The Leafs shipped Stempniak to Phoenix in 2010 and he exploded for 14 goals in 18 games. Stempniak has just two points in 11 career playoff games, but those appearances were with Phoenix. This is Pittsburgh.

Stephane Robidas, defenseman (acquired by Anaheim Ducks)

One thing I like more than Francois Beauchemin? Two Francois Beauchemins. Robidas gives the Ducks something close to that. Robidas has battled the injury bug in recent seasons, but he’s a stout minutes eater who can throw his weight around and block shots. He can even fill in on a second power play unit. He’s a great fit to round out Anaheim’s top four.

Marcel Goc, center (acquired by Pittsburgh Penguins)

The Pens already had amazing depth at center with Crosby, Malkin and Brandon Sutter and Goc makes them even stronger, not to mention more versatile. Goc hasn’t delivered on the offensive promise that made him the 20th overall pick in 2001 with San Jose, but he’s a very handy two-way player. He’s fast, he wins 52.8 percent of his faceoffs and he kills penalties. He was second among all Panthers in shorthanded ice time. It doesn’t reflect great on him that they have the league’s worst penalty kill, but he’s experienced in the role nonetheless. Not bad at all for a fourth-line pivot. My colleague Rory Boylen nailed this one in our Trade Deadline Central analysis.

A lot of big names moved this week, but most went to teams who were not contenders, but trading their way into contention, a la Montreal. Stempniak, Robidas and Goc remind me of the Handzus deals in that they could put already-great teams over the top.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin