Mark Stuart and the Variety of Hockey Skills

Kevin McCartney
February 03 2014 03:14PM

Photo by clydeorama

I’m back! I had to step aside to focus on my day job, but I’ve got a fresh bag of doritos and my writing jockeys on, so this is happening.

I haven’t had a chance to watch much of the Jets 2.1 under Paul Maurice, but I did witness a bizarre twitter battle after the game in Montreal, in which the supporters of Mark Stuart and those who want to just feel good about the Jets (no one blames those people, the team is 8-2 under the new coach) were vicious in lashing out against those who had spoken about Stuart as a barrier to the team’s success in the past. After two strong games in a row, supporters were vociferous about the value of the rugged blue liner. He took home second star, after all, and won the locker room 'Player of the Game' fighter pilot helmet. His team mates like him, and he's playing well.

With the deadline coming up, how do we evaluate the value of UFA Mark Stuart to the Jets? Is he turning a corner under Paul Maurice? What does he add to the club?

Long time readers will know that I’ve spoken about Mark Stuart negatively for the whole season (although I was more kind about him last year). I’m very clear about what I think his limitations are, and I hope similarly clear that those limitations are under-examined in a hockey-verse infatuated with his rugged, masculine approach to the game.

That’s not to say I think the man is incapable of good moments, good games, or even a good week or two. To the contrary, Mark Stuart (as all players) has strengths that got him to the highest level of the game, and weaknesses that need to be supported in what is ultimately a team contest.

Instead, I contend that hockey is a unique sport for requiring that all players play in both wide open spaces and in extremely tight quarters. All skaters regardless of position have to have two wildly different skill sets to be successful, and Mark Stuart doesn’t have both.

Hockey is a bit unique in the skills required. All skaters have to manage wide open spaces at high speeds, both with and without the puck, both attacking and defending. That has a whole set of skills, from edge control to puck skills, from hand-eye coordination to anticipation and spatial awareness. 

But players also have to manage a very small puck in tiny spaces, often with some form of wrestling going on. Board battles, loose pucks, making a short pass through the dozen feet and sticks of a crowd requires a level of focus and awareness by the passer, the receiver, and everyone in the crowd. Organizing your body in traffic, tracking a foreign object at speed, and managing your opponent’s body as well as your own are an entirely separate set of skills. 

We’ve seen countless players who are better in traffic than in open space or vice versa. They are different skills that require different movements and different types of awareness.

At the NHL level, and increasingly in the modern era, players are expected to be good at both and to transition between them smoothly.

The simple reality with Mark Stuart is that he is an NHL level defender at one set of skills – his ‘traffic’ skills – and extremely poor relative to other NHL players at the other set of skills – ‘open ice’ skills. His puck skills are poor, his vertical gapping in defence is horrifying, his puck support is not particularly strong. Even during his in-zone defending, he doesn't read holes or passing lanes well. In transition, his primary read is to retreat all the way to his hash marks before he defends, meaning he gives up roughly 100 feet of open ice in order to begin defending when he’s able to use his traffic skills, when formations tighten and players come closer together.

Some games expose that. Other teams key on his side and enter the zone repeatedly from their right wing. His partners often look lost as they try to cover too many jobs at once, with back doors open and the top of the zone available as well. The opponent will use a pressure point up the boards instead of on the end boards, and suddenly instead of fighting for a puck and chipping it past the danger, Stuart is asked to make a play with the puck with relatively little pressure. 

In those games, Stuart’s corsi numbers are a huge minus, we see turnovers, and things feel chaotic. That’s one very real part of Mark Stuart’s game. In limited viewings, it looks like Maurice is trying help Stuart with this.

The Jets are using a higher pressure point in the offensive zone that lets them have better back pressure, and there is now a forward taking away the top of the zone in defensive transition. Even when teams enter on Stuart’s side, their options are fewer and the likelihood that they choose to go to a traffic area – the corner, the end boards, or through Stuart – rise considerably.

When the Jets can neutralize transition offense as a team, and Mark Stuart can defend from the front of the net to the corner, he looks like a different player. He's suddenly breaking cycles, punching people to positive effect, and getting the puck off the end boards and out of danger. His corsi numbers rise over that 40% mark, he’s remembered fondly for a few big plays, and he’s supporting up ice behind the clean Jets breakout. We know that through circumstance and structure, Stuart has been asked to use his NHL level skills, and not his sub-NHL skills in those contests.

For Stuart, there is a clear delineation between open ice skills and traffic skills. We can debate which skills are more valuable to the way we see the game, but there is little debate that Mark Stuart can scrum with the best of them. Moreover, even by his supporters, there should be very little debate that he manages the open space of the game with the worst of them.

So you prefer Grant Clitsome?

From my perspective, being successful in the corsi-era of hockey requires multi-tool players. They have to be able to manage open space and traffic play. Whether a Mark Stuart or a Grant Clitsome excel on a team often speaks to the system they're in. Under Noel, the gaps between players were huge and Grant Clitsome was moderately successful at using that open space. That doesn't make him the better defender - just flawed in a different way. Similarly, Mark Stuart may have looked worse than he is under Noel because his flaws were showcased.

We often talk about the two skill sets of hockey being offence and defence. It's a limited view, and the fact that Stuart can't produce offence isn't the problem. His problem is that when the puck is in open play, the team is better off having almost any other defender on the ice. The two worst parts of his game are his outlet pass and his vertical gaps in defending. From one perspective of hockey, those are foundational skills. 

With all players who have a deficit in their game, team structure can alleviate the worst of it. Stuart has spent quite a bit of this season in the league basement for share of shot attempts, showing that he spends his time in his own zone defending.

Corsi percentage is the rate of shot attempts for versus the rate of shot attempts against expressed as one number. Players tend to fall out of the league after a season below 40% (4 out of every ten shot attempts for), so the margin is small. At the same time, we're just at the thin edge of the analytical wedge as fans, and so saying that a player is definitely better at 48% over 47% seems unsatisfying at best. So let's focus on Stuart's big swings.

In 34 games under Claude Noel this season, Stuart had 14 games with a corsi share of 40% or less, and just 2 games with a 60% share or more. In ten games under Maurice, Stuart has had two at 40% or worse, and two at 60% or better. That's right, he has as many games over 60% under the new coach as he had under the last one. He's managed to climb away from the Mike Weber's, Douglas Murray's, and Nick Schultz's at the very bottom of the league to be 167th worst (out of 195 with at least 28 games played). That's a fair climb in a short span, and we can cheer it. But it also reflects his low ceiling as a player who struggles in defensive and offensive transition. It's a part of the game, and Mark Stuart is not good at it compared to his NHL counterparts.

So What?

We can recognize that he's a flawed player while we cheer like hell, but when we analyze how the team manages this UFA asset, we have to be realistic. Do the Jets need a player with Mark Stuart's skill set? Maybe. There are a lot of ways to solve the same problem in hockey, and his skills are just as necessary as the ones he's missing. Should he be traded? That decision can't be made by whether his teammates like him, or if he's recently had a good game. 

Instead, I think it's more productive to ask a long term question and a short term question. Long term, is it plausible the team could find a replacement from the Willie Mitchell/Brooks Orpik tree of gritty, multi-tool defenders who can manage their gaps and move the puck up the ice? Short-term, are Adam Pardy and Keaton Ellerby able to do that job, along with Bogosian, Trouba, and even Byfuglien and Enstrom? 

Those are real questions for this team, the answers to which should determine whether he's traded at the deadline. 

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Kevin is a regular contributor to Jets Nation. His work has been featured on Bleacher Report, The Sporting News, and around the Nations Network. An enthusiastic over-analyst, his background and interests are diverse, but you might notice he's obsessed with hockey. Track him down on twitter @kevinmccart
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#1 Rhys Finnick
February 03 2014, 03:55PM
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Perhaps Maurice has been told to make Stuart look as appealing as possible before the trade deadline? That seems like a bit of a stretch, but we've certainly seen teams do so in the past. Stuart genuinely has looked miles better as of late, but hopefully the Jets don't fool themselves into keeping him in their top-4 going forward.

As we've seen from the Murray deal last year, teams may still be willing to overpay for what they see as a strong, stay at home defenseman. If he isn't traded, Stuart could still have a role on the Jets, but he'd have to resign a short term deal for a bit less than his 1.7M cap hit and be the 5th or 6th D-man at most.

Good to have you back, Kevin!

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#2 X
February 03 2014, 04:11PM
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Just off the top of my head I would add that one quality that Stuart has that many Jets defenders seem to struggle with is hitting the net with a shot. Stuart doesn't take many but the ones he takes seem to at least be on target-ish. He should run a clinic on that for Bogo and Trouba before he is sent out as a rental for a 3rd-round pick. I am sure it would be a jovial session with a lot of playful banter, the perfect send-off for an all-around good guy.

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