Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Stuart a solid rock to build on

Club can't afford to lose a player with the quality this man brings

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To view Mark Stuart through a snapshot might leave a middling impression, but for the entire story one needs to watch the movie from beginning to end.

Average skater, average shot and an average puck mover are all fair assessments where Stuart is concerned. So too are superior person, superior leader and superior teammate. No, Stuart's personal film isn't about highlights but rather tells a story of foundation and inner strength.

Replacing a defenceman best suited to play in the bottom pair seems easy enough. Replacing a team's soul and its arbiter of right and wrong is much harder. Trading Stuart would leave the Winnipeg Jets with a critical void and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff will likely exercise caution from now until next Wednesday's trade deadline.

There may be offers that need to be considered and even some that must be acted upon. But Stuart's value to Winnipeg likely exceeds what it would be elsewhere.

A contender looking for a depth defenceman will already have the qualities Stuart provides or they wouldn't be a contender.

'I believe in this team and this organization, and we're on the verge of doing good things here and I want to be a part of it. I want to stay in Winnipeg'

-- Jets blue-liner Mark Stuart

Players like Stuart are required for winning and if the Jets are ever to make the next step, they'll need players of this quality.

So don't trade Stuart and go one better -- sign him to a new contract and prevent him from perusing the open market this July when he'll become an unrestricted free agent.

For his part, Stuart wants to stay, as he told me point-blank this week.

"I believe in this team and this organization, and we're on the verge of doing good things here and I want to be a part of it," Stuart said. "I want to stay in Winnipeg."

Somewhere, Stuart's agent just drove off the road. As an unrestricted free agent this summer, quotes like the above don't help elevate the market.

Such is Stuart, however, that money and the size of his next contract aren't a top priority. Team and winning are first. Refreshing.

But not surprising from a man who gives pounds away almost every time he fights in an NHL game but still continues to wade into the fray when deemed appropriate. Not surprising from a player who will hurl his body into the path of the puck, no matter the shooter. Not surprising from a player who deals with injury and pain as a matter of course.

Not long ago, during the depths of a Jets losing streak, reporters converged on the team's dressing room to find a handful of bit players and rookies available for questioning. The stars had vanished. Stuart raised hell in the trainer's room, ordering veterans to get back in the room and face the interrogation.

The media in a Canadian NHL market are a constant. It never stops. It's an annoyance. But it's also the conduit from players and coaches to fans.

The fans are also a constant and the lifeblood of an organization. Their cash makes a franchise that pays seven-figure salaries work. Some players refuse to recognize this, but for players like Stuart it comes naturally. He's as standup as standup gets.

Assessing Stuart through the prism of a 30-second shift will provide a false evaluation.

Following him and watching him since he arrived in this city better helps one understand what he is and provides to the Winnipeg Jets. He's this franchise's conscience. A throwback to different days and ways of doing things. He's a leader. Maybe the leader.

Trading him would expose the Winnipeg Jets, and while Cheveldayoff is still very much in tomorrow mode, he's also got his eye on today. Stuart's example is key in a room with youths such as Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba still learning their way around the NHL and the life of a pro hockey player.

To put it bluntly, there are not as many players in the Jets dressing room one would trust with the care and guidance of their child's future as Cheveldayoff would like.

Stuart is one player Jets management can rely on to lead the future in the right direction.

For an organization that has drifted from abysmal to mediocre since its inception as the Atlanta Thrashers, a player of Stuart's makeup is paramount. Cheveldayoff is making deliberate steps to put the right talent in place to push this team into a new stratosphere.

But talent is only one portion of the picture. Character is another. Character that Stuart represents and embodies. Cheveldayoff is protective of young talent, and for good reason. The same should be said for Stuart.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2014 C2

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Updated on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 5:44 AM CST: Replaces photo

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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