You’ve heard of the “Summer of George.” Well welcome to the 2010-11 Bruins’ version: “Season of Stuart.”
At least that’s how it’s going to have to be for the Boston blueliner now that he has re-signed with the club for just one year at $1.675 million as a restricted free agent. Next summer, Stuart will be unrestricted barring a long-term extension – which he won’t be eligible to sign until after Jan. 1, 2011.
Stuart said today after the deal was made official that he wasn’t expecting to receive anything more than a one-year contract after injuries ended his consecutive games played streak at 214 and limited him to just 56 regular season games and four playoff appearances last year. Now he has to make sure the upcoming season gets him back on the right development track so he can earn some measure of security, with the Bruins or elsewhere.
“That stuff happens and it’s part of the game,” Stuart said of the injuries during a conference call with the Boston media. “Unfortunately, no matter what, I think it gets factored in. … If you’re going to get a long-term deal, you have to earn it.”
“If I can earn a long-term deal by playing very well this year,” he continued, “I’ll be very happy with it.”
Injuries had never hit Stuart before the Bruins’ Dec. 14 contest with Philadelphia. Stuart suffered a broken sternum but finished out the game before succumbing to the injury and missing the next 14 games. He had played all 82 games in his first two full NHL season.
He came back and was playing the best hockey of his pro life after the sternum injury, playing top-four minutes for a stretch on a Boston’s injury-riddled back end. Then came a classic Stuart sequence, as he leveled Los Angeles star forward Anze Kopitar in a Jan. 30 game at TD Garden and defended himself against Wayne Simmonds, who jumped Stuart. Unfortunately, that brief, even bout resulted in a broken finger that cost Stuart the next month of action. And then it got infected so badly he was knocked from the lineup in early April until Game 4 against Philadelphia in the second round of the playoffs.
Stuart says he has been off antibiotics for a while now and should get a clean bill of health on his finger in the weeks ahead. Then it’ll be full steam ahead into his fourth NHL season, where he’ll have to begin the process of proving himself all over again. Not only does he need to get the years, he needs to get the money next time around. Stuart now makes less than teammates Johnny Boychuk, who has played a total of just 56 NHL games, and Andrew Ference, who has skated in just 60 percent of Boston’s games for three seasons.
With the recent signings around the league of Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jeff Schultz and other comparable defensemen, you would think Stuart might’ve done well in arbitration. But he and his agent decided to not take a chance that the one injury-plagued season would cost him, and the Bruins were spared the risk that an award of $2 million or more could put them in a deeper salary-cap predicament.
So Stuart has proven he’s as much of a team player off the ice as he is on it. If healthy, his stay-at-home, hard-hitting play should challenge Boychuk, Ference and Matt Hunwick for a coveted spot in the Bruins’ top four, where Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg are ensconced. If Stuart meets his potential, he could price himself right out of the Bruins’ league. General manager Peter Chiarelli spoke today of a potential extension for Stuart during the season and the flexibility his club will have next year. But with Seidenberg, Boychuk and Ference already signed for 2011-12 at $1.875 or more and Chara due an extension prior to next year, the club obviously has a lot already invested in its blue-line corps.
With a player of Stuart’s character, you can expect that the notion he might be in Boston much longer than one more season, or that one injury could cost him dearly again, won’t affect his play. After all, he’s widely regarded as future captain material and has shown it’ll take nothing short of doctor’s orders to get him to stay out of the lineup.
The Bruins could benefit from Stuart’s extra incentive this season. And he should finally be ready to earn a major role on a contending NHL squad. So let the “Season of Stuart” begin.