Mark Stuart: Player-Hitting, Shot-Blocking Machine

Judging by the reaction to Gary Lawless’ column in the Winnipeg Free Press, Jets fans really like defenseman Mark Stuart. He’s something of a throwback defender; he plays a physical game, blocks a lot of shots, and contributes minimally in the offensive zone.

For a defensive defenseman, Stuart has been used in interesting ways by the coaching staff.

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Of interest is the number of offensive zone starts that Stuart has been on the ice for. Gabriel Desjardins tracks this information at Behind the Net, and it turns out that Stuart leads all Jets blue-liners in terms of the percentage of shifts that he starts in the attacking zone (usual partner Zach Bogosian ranks second), which is odd usage for a defensive defenseman. It’s particularly odd when one considers the other players on the roster – Stuart’s well down the list of offensively capable defensemen, and while Bogosian has shown flashes in the past he is certainly an inferior scoring option to players like Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien.

League-wide, among defensemen who have played more than five games, Stuart ranks fourth overall in percentage of starts in the attacking zone. There’s an interesting mix of names around Stuart, including a lot of inexperienced defenders (players like Yannick Weber, Adam Larsson, Jakub Kindl and David Runblad, to name four). Also on the list are guys with offensive ability; Marc-Andre Bergeron, Brent Burns and Mark Giordano all make cameo appearances.

The player at the top of the list, though, belongs to a third category. Sheldon Brookbank is an extremely limited defenseman with the Anaheim Ducks who has typically filled a “reserve” role – he’s big, mean and can fill a penalty-killing slot, but he’s a liability at even-strength. Typically, players that get a lot of offensive zone starts from their coaches get that work because either a) they contribute offensively in a way others don’t or b) they’re well down on the coaches’ list of preferred defensive-zone options. No matter how poor the lighting, Brookbank doesn’t fit in the first category; clearly, he’s getting those offensive zone starts because the coach wants to protect him rather than because he will fill the net.

It is tempting to label Stuart the same way. He hasn’t gotten a sniff of power play time, because the team has a long list of better offensive options on the back end. A lot of the value that he adds comes on the penalty kill – Stuart’s playing more than three and a half minutes per night shorthanded – and he brings a physical element that the blue line doesn’t get from a lot of other players.

That analysis finds some confirmation in the shot data. In an average hour of 5-on-5 ice time with Stuart off the ice, the Jets outshoot their opponents 27 to 22. In that same average hour, this time with Stuart on the ice, the Jets get outshot 27 to 25.

It’s also not a case of Stuart and Bogosian playing against the best opponents. In Monday’s game against the Rangers, Stuart’s defense pairing barely got a sniff of Gaborik and Richards – instead, they drew New York’s second line. He played roughly 20 seconds against Eric Staal when the Jets hosted the Hurricanes. Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien are the players drawing top opponents night after night, and they’re giving up offensive minutes in exchange – among Jets defensemen, only Johnny Oduya has started a higher percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone than Winnipeg’s top two offensive defenders.

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That’s not to say Stuart doesn’t have a role. He is logging heavy minutes on the penalty kill. He has earned the admiration of fans for his willingness to stand in front of a shot – something he’s done 21 times, nearly twice as much as the next-best Jets’ skater. He plays a physical style, without taking an undue amount of penalties. There is value in those things.

Going back to Lawless’ column, it’s difficult to agree with the entirety of it. Stuart’s physical play is noted, and obviously the coaches see value in it. But the ideas that Stuart is “essential” and keeps getting ice-time because of “trustworthy” play are more problematic. Stuart’s usage is not that of a player the coaching staff leans on in key situations. Rather, it’s been the usage of a player the coaches like because he can fill a role (physical play and penalty killing) but one that needs careful handling at even-strength.