NHL players and coaches constantly watch video to learn the tendencies, strengths and weaknesses of their opponents.
So why does it seem that no one knows Mark Stuart is a clean, honest hitter?
For the third time this season Saturday night, Stuart had to answer the fight bell after he cleanly rocked an opponent’s world and that player’s teammate decided the only thing to do was make Stuart drop the gloves.
Against the Blues, it was Jay McClement who Stuart pulverized in the neutral zone before B.J. Crombeen raced in to brawl with the Boston defenseman. Previously, Stuart’s hits on Buffalo’s Patrick Kaleta and the New York Rangers’ Ruslan Fedotenko caused similar reactions by Cody McCormick and Sean Avery, respectively, against Stuart.
In four-plus NHL seasons, Stuart has never been less than a stand-up guy and hasn’t ever been embroiled in any controversy involving the legality of one of his hits.
Stuart was unavailable for comment after the game Saturday, and the Bruins were off today. Instead, I asked some of his teammates, what gives with everyone challenging Stuart every time he punishes a puck-carrier? None of them could figure out an answer. They just know that Stuart’s as honest as they come, and he’s not going to back down just because he seemingly has a target on his chest.
“It’s his game. He’s going to keep stepping up and making those hits,” said winger Milan Lucic. “If the guy’s got his head down in the middle of the ice, he’s not going to hesitate to step into him. Stew’s done a great job of that so far and he’s not scared to stick up for himself, that’s for sure.”
Really, this nonsense has to stop. Unfortunately, the Bruins aren’t a model outfit when it comes to overreacting to a big hit. Andrew Ference admitted after the St. Louis game that he had no idea who had been hit, or whether it was clean or dirty, when he decided to go after Blues forward David Backes. So, disappointingly, the Bruins are as guilty as the next team.
Not to go all “back in my day” on you, but whatever happened to withstanding a big hit, getting up and playing on? The best response to a hit that lands you on your keester, should be an equally firm check on that player by you or your teammate later in the game. Or maybe you get up and score a big goal that shows the big hit might’ve slowed you, but didn’t stop you.
Jumping a player that steamrolls your teammate, unless you’re pretty certain the hit was dirty, is such a self-defeating decision. The five minutes in the box you receive might be more valuable than the other guy’s five minutes, depending on that player’s position in his team’s hierarchy. The Crombeen-Stuart trade-off probably works in the Blues’ favor, but what if it had been a lesser Bruins player? Suddenly you’re hurting your team’s chances all for some bizarre display of macho-ness.
In Stuart’s case, specifically, the Bruins have to hope this trend ends soon. At his current rate, Stuart will throw somewhere between 16 to 20 bone-rattling hits and have to fight an equal amount of times. The more a guy fights, the more risk there is for injury and the more time the Bruins have to play with just five available defensemen. Head coach Claude Julien isn’t going to ask Stuart to stop defending himself, even if he sees how absurd these scenarios are.
“What you want to see from your team is to do the right thing. And there’s going to be a risk every time you do those kind of things, and you’ve got to accept those risks,” said the coach. “He’s standing up for himself, and I have no issues with that. It’s a trend. I mentioned that last week. As soon as there’s a clean hit, there’s somebody coming after somebody. He’s sticking up for himself. At least he’s fighting his own battles, not like other players we’ve seen in the past that have other people do their dirty work.”
Stuart suffered what amounted to a season-ending finger injury last season when he had to defend himself against Los Angeles’ Wayne Simmonds after a clean hit across the blue line on Anze Kopitar. If injury is ultimately these players’ goal, then it might be time for Stuart to re-think how he reacts when someone jumps him. Because it doesn’t appear the league or the players themselves intend on doing anything to revert to the days when a clean hit was met with returned blow rather than an invitation to brawl.