SAN JOSE The summer of 2012 wasnt much different for Brad Stuart than the summer after he was sent to Boston in 2005 as part of the Sharks-Bruins trade that brought Joe Thornton to the Bay Area.
Stuart kept his house here, returning every offseason, including after each of the previous five years with Detroit. Now, hes back at that house full-time, and looking forward to putting on a teal and black sweater again at HP Pavilion.
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Really, at this point it seems like nothing is different, other than Im wearing different colors and Ive been able to come into the facility all summer, the defenseman said on Friday at Sharks Ice.
Sharks fans that were looking forward to seeing Stuart, who was drafted third overall by San Jose in 1998 and spent the first five-plus years of his career here, will have to wait, as the NHL lockout drags on. The first two weeks of the regular season have already been wiped out, so Stuarts return is delayed. The Sharks home opener against the New York Rangers was set for Oct. 15.
Obviously, from a personal standpoint, I was anxious to get going, and excited about this season. I guess Ive got to put that on hold for a little bit, said Stuart, who has no plans to sign with a team overseas, as so many other NHLers have done already. The tough part I guess, at this point, is not knowing how long the lockout is going to be. You dont know what youre really getting ready for at this point. Youve got to stay focused and keep that mentality that you have in the mid-summer, preparing for a season.
Speculation that Stuart would return to the Bay Area was rampant even before last season ended, and while he was still sporting a winged wheel. It was known that he wanted to be closer to his wife and family, which includes two boys (four and five years old) and Stuarts 17-year-old stepdaughter.
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Red Wings general manager Ken Holland traded Stuarts rights to the Sharks on June 10 before the defenseman was to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, with the stipulation that Detroit would still be interested in Stuarts services if he was unable to come to an agreement with San Jose.
Sharks GM Doug Wilson quickly locked Stuart up, though, on a three-year contract worth 3.6 million annually.
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I had been pretty open and honest with Detroit the whole time. The situation was pretty hard on my family. As much as I loved playing there and being a part of that organization, I had to at least try to get closer to my family, whether that was here or somewhere further West, Stuart said. If that didnt work out, I was open to going back to the Wings, but I had to at least try. Things worked out for the best, obviously.
When and if the 2012-13 season gets going, Stuart will immediately step in to the Sharks defense corps in a top four role. Along with Dan Boyle, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the Sharks can boast of one of the strongest top two pairings in the league.
Having a combination of the veteran Douglas Murray, the improving Justin Braun and Jason Demers to fill out the bottom pair, or fill in in case of injury, and the Sharks defense may be the strongest facet of their team (although Murray and Demers will both be trying to rebound from difficult seasons).
Stuart should also be able to help the teams penalty-killing, which finished 29th in the NHL and was a glaring weakness throughout a season in which the Sharks underachieved. Stuart led the Red Wings in time-on-ice shorthanded per game last season (3:10), and Detroit finished 18th in the NHL at 81.8 percent, nearly five percentage points higher than San Joses ineffective unit (76.9 percent).
I can be a guy that can play in the top four and just be steady, physical, and play some hard minutes, penalty kill, said Stuart, who had six goals and 15 assists along with 29 penalty minutes last season. Make it tough for other teams to play against thats my game, thats what Ill do.
Stuarts return to the Sharks could also be viewed as a case of if you cant beat em, join em. The Sharks have had an abundance of success against Detroit in recent years, including eliminating them from the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2010 and 2011. Last season, the Sharks won three of the four head-to-head matchups before both clubs suffered first-round playoff defeats in April.
I think as a team, they got up to play us, as most teams do. When you have the skill that the Sharks have, theyre a dangerous team, Stuart said.
Still, the Sharks still appear to a group whose window is closing, if it hasnt already. Core players like Thornton, Boyle, Patrick Marleau, Ryane Clowe and Marty Havlat will all be on the wrong side of 30 by the time the season gets underway.
The 32-year-old Stuart isnt buying that, though.
From the outside looking in, people are going to talk about that. Thats one thing that jumps out. I went through the same thing playing for Detroit, it was always, This team is getting too old. The window is closing. But somehow, some way we kept finding a way to win.
I think if youve got guys that are committed to that and youre bringing guys up through the system they see that, and it just kind of carries on down. This team has a lot of skill and theyve got some good young players I think can learn from the older guys. It trickles down, and they become the guys that can set the example, and it carries on for years and years.