Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

He's not a star, but does great job

Stuart steadies young, risky D

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Every developing team needs a Mark Stuart, a marine willing to hop overboard into the teeth of enemy fire and find his way to shore while hauling along as many of his boys as he can.

Maybe the hero gets capped along the way and doesn't make it to the final credits, but he's instrumental in character development and the plot.

The argument can be made that if Mark Stuart is a team's No. 4 defenceman, that team isn't very good. We'll leave such discussions to clubs in the league's top third. The Winnipeg Jets don't have the luxury of such big-picture thinking. For them, it's a night-by- night test of scratching and clawing for whatever points are available and Stuart figures largely in that effort.

For a team looking to move up, with young and risky defencemen flitting around like flies near spoiled fruit, a steady Eddie such as Stuart is a must.

As those young Ds season and become more reward than risk, Stuart will be less valuable and slip more comfortably into a sixth or seventh spot. But right now he's an essential. He's the Amex card of the Jets blue-line and they dare not leave home without him.

Stuart is not the most skilful of the Jets, but in some ways he's the most important. He's the sprocket holding all those flying parts together.

The NHL is the basest of places to exist and the smallest sign of weakness will be exploited without mercy.

Why do you think coaches have invented this lower- and upper-body injury nonsense? Because if a player knows where another is hurt, he'll try to take advantage.

Players like Stuart protect a team's competitive psyche. Want to stand in the Jets crease? Don't expect it to be rent-free if Stuart is around. Want to bump a Jets goalie after the whistle? Stuart will jab or slash or cross-check you for your trouble. He's not a thug and not paid to fight, but he keeps others honest with his own honest play. It's a commodity.

No, he won't quarterback the power play or make the beautiful crossing pass coming out of his own end. More likely, Stuart will bang it off the wall in simple but efficient fashion, but he'll keep getting his number called by coach Claude Noel because he's trustworthy.

Two games ago, Stuart took a slapshot in the ass, and after willing his way through the shift, wobbled his way off the ice. Barely missing a turn, he was back in the action and cross-checking the heck out of Carolina Hurricanes forward Brandon Sutter, who had found his way into Jets goalie Chris Mason's personal space.

Monday night, Stuart was back at it again, logging minutes and playing the responsible backdrop to defence partner Zach Bogosian's flash.

Stuart's name won't pop up in any Norris Trophy discussions but don't under-rate his value to the Jets.

Right now, it's immeasurable.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 25, 2011 D1

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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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