Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Posted: 01/31/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0
Last Modified: 01/31/2014 6:42 AM | Updates
As he has attempted a sort of retrofit of the Winnipeg Jets, new coach Paul Maurice has practised what he preaches.
Calling for a more steady determination and with an insistence that the game plan does not go out the window with a bad twist or turn in a game, Maurice has employed a very stable lineup card that has included consistent defence pairings.
It is here where he has been rewarded in numerous ways -- apart from the team's 6-2 mark in its last eight games and preparing for tonight's first Winnipeg encounter with the Vancouver Canucks -- not the least of which has been from veteran defenceman Mark Stuart.
Nobody has ever questioned the 29-year-old Rochester, Minn., native's battle level or his heart.
Heck, Stuart is THE most likely Jets candidate to play the next game, if required, with an arm or leg attached by mere duct tape.
Now, it seems, a little faith and a little more action have dividends.
Stuart has been the choice to partner with rookie sensation Jacob Trouba, not as a babysitter but as the complementary piece for the maximum return.
'I just feel like I'm doing what I have to do, really. That's just playing my game. It's nothing exciting. It's nothing flashy. It's working hard, trying to play well defensively and killing penalties and playing physical'
-- Mark Stuart
"He plays a simple game," Jets assistant coach Charlie Huddy said Thursday, asked what makes Stuart tick. "You know what you're getting from him every night. He's not going to get the puck and try to beat one guy or two guys. He gets it on his stick and he knows that it's get it up to the forwards and get it quick."
Stuart's low-maintenance label -- that's hockey speak for not requiring constant attention or coddling -- makes him a very good fit here.
"At the end of the day, he's a pro and he's been around long enough," Huddy said. "Most times if he's made a mistake or something goes wrong on the ice, he knows it himself and I don't need to say anything."
What's worthy of saying today is how this subtle shift in Stuart's use is working out.
As Trouba's regular partner, he's plus-seven in the eight games since Maurice took over and his playing time has increased.
Not by a whopping amount. At the coaching change, Stuart had averaged 17 minutes per game and had six games this season of more than 19 minutes.
Since the switch, he's had six games of more than 19 minutes, five of more than 20 and is averaging 19:07.
"First, I think it's well-deserved," Huddy said. "I think we know what we're getting out of him, and him and Troubs have been a good pair together and I've been able to use them against top lines.
"Stewy is a settling help for him out there at times. With Buff (Dustin Byfuglien) up front now, somebody had to take some of those minutes and Stewy's gotten them and he's handled them well. There's always been, for me, a kind of a limit on Stewy, 17 to 18 (minutes) and it wasn't a knock against him, just the way he plays the game -- full out. He's going to get hits and it takes a lot out of you and he's usually out first on the penalty kill.
"That's taxing, too. Sometimes it's hard to take extra minutes but he's done a great job of handling those extra four or five, a real good job."
It all seems like water off a duck's back to Stuart, the eight-year veteran of 470 NHL games who was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers by Boston in early 2011.
"I don't really notice," he said Thursday, asked about the increase in minutes. "I think you're so engaged in the game, it's just fun. You're getting out there all the time. I don't really realize it until after you see the minutes.
"I just feel like I'm doing what I have to do, really. That's just playing my game. It's nothing exciting. It's nothing flashy. It's working hard, trying to play well defensively and killing penalties and playing physical."
Sometimes, Stuart can lean towards straight-faced, no matter what the question or occasion. It's an especially valuable state some days, given the questions that come after unsuccessful outings.
But there's a subtle approval in his face on the Trouba issue, being a partner and maybe part-time mentor to someone almost 10 years his junior.
"Troubs is a kid who's got tremendous skill and he's going to be such a good player -- he already is a good player in this league," Stuart said. "I'm just helping him out as much as I can.
"I think we complement each other well. He's such a good skater and he plays with the puck really well. He loves skating it up and I'm more a stay-back (player), think defence first."
Stuart's total of 164 games in a Jets uniform grows again tonight. The future, according to some, seems less certain, what with the NHL's trading deadline approaching on March 5 and the fact Stuart will be an unrestricted free agent in July.
"I really enjoy it here," Stuart said, not hesitating when asked if he could see himself playing here longer-term. "I've always believed in the future of this team and this organization. I think there's a very bright future here, so of course I would."
He said Thursday there has been no discussion at all about a contract extension that would keep him from going to the open market in the summer, but he hasn't given it much thought.
"No, nothing," he said. "I'm just playing, just trying to get us back on track here. That stuff will work itself out. We just need to win games. Can't be thinking about that stuff."
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 31, 2014 C2
Updated on Friday, January 31, 2014 at 6:42 AM CST: Replaces photo, adds video, changes headline
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