By this point in time I’m sure you are all aware that the Jets have signed defenseman Mark Stuart to a 4-year, $10.5 million contract. As I’m sure many of you know, I’ve been more than willingly to express my distaste with a lot of Stuart’s play this season. But for right now, I’m going to put that behind me and do my best to defend the extension without using a number at all….or using the words “character” or “shot blocking” as an argument.
I’m sure many of you will be shocked to learn that I’m actually somewhat okay with Stuart being back with the team at this point. I don’t like the four year term, mostly because he is 30 this year and is a depth guy. The dollars are fine, and well, I honestly think it was obvious the guy wasn’t going anywhere. Keeping him around was definitely better than seeing another asset walk out the door.
To address the obvious, I’m not using numbers in this article because well…they aren’t pretty. Nor has Stuart’s play on the ice been throughout a lot of this year. But as Garret of Arctic Ice Hockey (@garrethohl) pointed out today, Stu has played below his career norms throughout the majority of this season. It’s not hard to point this drop off to the fact that he’s played too many minutes too far up the lineup (he’s a 5-6 D, not a 3-4), but I’m not getting into that stuff for this article.
What I am going to talk about is the detrimental effect of losing a guy like Mark Stuart from your locker room. One thing we on the “stats” side of the universe often get criticized for is our inability to account for the “intangible” side of sports. While I don’t feel this to be completely true on a day to day basis, I hope to prove it a little bit here.
I’ve played sports my entire life. No, not at any sort of elite level but I’ve played enough and won enough to understand how roles work. When you’re a successful team, players understand the roles they have. You get to know where you fit in, what you can provide, and what your teammates provide for you. One thing I’ve seen through my experiences playing and coaching, is that the good teams have that “guy”. He may not be the one out there in a skill role, heck he might not even play very much. But the team loves him. He may provide humour, he may provide advice, or in this case he may provide a silly helmet for the player of the game to wear after every win. Whatever it may be, it’s the role that he fills.
The point is once you find that guy, he is near impossible to replace in the room. Is Mark Stuart replaceable on the ice? Of course. That’s why I get so frustrated when people try to sell us on his hockey ability. There are many players in the NHL that could walk onto this Winnipeg Jets team and provide equal, if not greater production. But to find someone that the locker room apparently would kill for? That’s not so easy.
I for one wouldn’t have wanted to walk into that Jets dressing room trying to explain why I shipped out a guy that everyone loved at the deadline. Sure, hockey is a business. But in Winnipeg, the business model is built around a “familial” atmosphere. Building a place where guys want to stay. A sense of faith that if you belong here, you’ll stay here. A feeling that guys want to fight for one another, and not let anyone down. A family. That’s likely what sold Ladd, Wheeler, Little and company on sticking around and growing their own families here. What message are you sending if you change that mentality now, shipping out a favourite of the group who wasn’t asking for outrageous amounts of money?
Obviously a guy in this role is not worth breaking the bank for. You can only spend so much money on a guy with the flaws that Stuart has, or you’re never going to have success (Chevy made a larger mistake in giving Pavelec the dollars and term he did). In this case, both parties understood the worth and the dollars worked out. The term, not so much. But that’s an article for another day.
My point is this. It’s been clear since the Jets came back to Winnipeg that they needed to build an organization that “cared”. One that gave the players a reason to fight and an even better reason to stay. Bringing back Stuart may not be the best on ice move and it honestly makes me wonder why Clitsome was brought back, but it was a sign to the players of the organizations mentality. It’s an organization that cares about the players. As someone who watches and evaluates as many Jets games as I do, I don’t think this is a deal you want to make. He’s an aging defender whose best “qualities” are things they generally do nothing for anybody on the ice. But as someone who wants to see the likes of Jacob Trouba and Mark Scheifele to sign long term deals in Winnipeg one day, I see this as a sign of good faith that if they keep working they will be rewarded. God knows the weather isn’t giving them a good reason to stay.