It’s much harder to find a comparable for Bruins defenseman Mark Stuart than it is for winger Blake Wheeler. So much of what Stuart provides Boston is intangible — toughness, solid defensive play and leadership.
However, that won’t stop me from trying to break down the situation.
Stuart just turned 26 this spring. After registering just eight points in his first full NHL season, he signed a two-year deal worth a cap hit of $1.3 million and rewarded Boston with a jump to 17 points. We was on pace to just about match that last season had he not suffered his first injuries of his professional life. Previously, he played every game for two straight seasons. This will be his third contract, and obviously he’ll be in for a raise.
You can learn a lot from what the Bruins have done with contracts for some of their current and recently departed defensemen. We all know about the infamous Andrew Ference three-year extension worth $2.25 million per season. Ference has only managed to be healthy for 64 percent of the Bruins’ regular season games over the last three seasons, and he has averaged 17 points per season since the lockout. Even if healthy, Ference is obviously a veteran on the downswing.
As far as younger players on the upswing, Johnny Boychuk was just rewarded for a solid rookie season with a $1.875 million deal and Matt Hunwick was granted a $1.45 million deal after a 27-point rookie year. The Bruins obviously paid these guys based on potential and offensive upside. Stuart has only one of these two, with his point totals not expected to ever exceed the 20 range. And he’ll only reach those heights if he beats out the likes of Ference, Hunwick and Boychuk for a spot in Boston’s top four.
Boston seems to be saying to its blueliners ‘we think you can all be top-four guys someday, now go out and prove it.’ That’s the role Stuart will be in next season if the Bruins’ defense corps stays as currently constituted, with Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg ensconced as the top two and everyone else battling for playing time.
When you look outside the organization at guys who are similarly aged and who were drafted in the same year as Stuart or thereabouts, you find a couple guys that have really cashed in. Matt Greene was drafted the year before Stuart. Los Angeles thought enough of Greene’s intangibles to reward their 14-point blueliner with a five-year deal worth $2.95 million per season. Obviously, they saw some more offensive potential and hoped he’d be a permanent member of their top four. In seven fewer games last season than than ’09, his point total dropped to nine. Assuming he stays healthy, a top-four spot is his to lose.
Braydon Coburn had been trying to make himself a full-time top-four guy for a couple seasons. He totaled 28 points in ’08-09 and then dropped to 19 in ’09-10. But as a reliable top-four blueliner on the team that won the Eastern Conference title, Coburn raised his profile and was rewarded with a two-year contract worth $3.2 million per season.
It’s not likely that coming off an injury-plagued season, and with little experience playing in the top four, Stuart could aim as high as Greene and Coburn’s deals. He also should be able to make more than his above-mentioned teammates and fellow ’03 draftee Shane O’Brien (the Vancouver defenseman just re-signed for $1.6 million and plays a physical game similar to Stuart’s. O’Brien is mostly a third-pair guy.).
Could a deal for between $2-2.5 million be out of the question for Stuart? The Bruins organization has developed him almost perfectly, with improvement every season. And he’s often heralded as a leader worthy of a future captaincy role. Making Stuart that rich would make the Bruins’ salary-cap situation even more precarious, but they’ve created their own somewhat off-target defenseman’s pay scale. While re-signing Stuart might require a trade of an incumbent blueliner, we already knew general manager Peter Chiarelli was spending these hot summer weeks working the phones to make some deals.
As for the chances Stuart would be the bait in a trade, it’s unlikely a team that lacked for leadership at times last season would move an up-and-comer like Stuart, who possesses a well-rounded game and seems ready to peak on his development chart.