Stuart goes from hockey hell to heaven

Ross McKeon

DETROIT – In a lot of ways, Brad Stuart is to the Detroit Red Wings what Brad May was to the Anaheim Ducks last year.

Anaheim general manager Brian Burke made May his lone addition to the team at the 2007 trade deadline. May was a hard-nosed, experienced player with the characteristics that fit Anaheim's M.O. Scrutinized at the time for not making more deals, Burke sat back and watched his team win 16 of 21 playoff games to win California's first Stanley Cup.

Fast forward to the most recent trade deadline about three months ago. That's when general manager Ken Holland was surveying a Red Wings team that, aside from battling a rash of injuries on defense, had the look of a Cup contender. Fresh on his mind, too, was how similar blue-line injuries derailed Detroit's attempts last spring to survive a demanding Western Conference route against Calgary, San Jose and eventual Cup champion Anaheim.

It's understandable that some eyebrows were raised when Holland's only deal at the deadline was to acquire Stuart, originally a high-profile draft pick who had turned into a journeyman defenseman the last couple of seasons.

Now, with Detroit poised on Monday night to close out the Cup run in the same number of games as Anaheim, Stuart, too, is on the precipice of hockey's ultimate prize, just weeks before the 10th anniversary of getting drafted into the NHL.

"It couldn't have worked out any better," Stuart said.

It wasn't long ago Stuart was toiling on the blue line for the Los Angeles Kings, the league's worst team. He signed a one-year deal last summer in Southern California with the same GM – Dean Lombardi – who made Stuart the third overall pick years earlier with the San Jose Sharks.

And though Stuart and the Kings had engaged in initial talks of a contract extension, he figured the team's position in the standings and the fact he would be eligible for unrestricted free-agent status again this summer could lead to another new destination.

"I know that they told me that they wanted to try to keep me, but I still thought they might want to get something for me," Stuart said. "In that way I guess I wasn't surprised."

Moved for a second-round pick in the draft later this month and a fourth-rounder next year, Stuart headed to Detroit to play for his fifth different team since the start of the 2005-06 season. And if the results are any indication, Stuart may have finally found a home for at least the next several seasons.

"I like it," he said. "We'll have to see what happens."

The transition has been smooth because for the first time in a long time the 28-year-old native of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, doesn't feel like he has to do too much. On a blue line as deep, talented and clearly defined in roles, Stuart can go back to what he does best – defend and let the rest of the game come naturally.

"I think he was maybe trying to do more things offensively," said teammate Brian Rafalski, who came from New Jersey in the offseason. "Here he's able to simplify things, concentrate on defense. I went through some of the same things early in the season so I can relate to what he went through. He's done just a great job of fitting right in."

Paired with emerging star Niklas Kronwall, Stuart is having a successful postseason. While he and Kronwall are getting recognized for their physical nature in these playoffs, Stuart is enjoying a run of offensive success as well. He scored the winning goal in Detroit's 3-0 victory over Pittsburgh in Game 2, and he has an assist in each of the Red Wings' last five playoff games.

Sometimes second assists are a gift on the score sheet, but certainly not the one Stuart earned on Jiri Hudler's tie-breaking goal early in the third period of Game 4 on Saturday night. Stuart held two attempted Pittsburgh clears in at the right point, pinching to hold the first one in and displaying a quick and clever stick just inside the blue line on the second one.

Stuart's pass to Darren Helm was forwarded to Hudler, who beat Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with a backhand that would stand as the game-winner to put the Red Wings within a win of their 11th Stanley Cup. In addition, Stuart has been on ice for eight of Detroit's nine non-power-play goals in the series.

"Because everybody has their role you can do what you're asked and not worry about trying to do too much," Stuart said. "When your team is winning it makes it easier. When your team is not winning you sometimes wonder if you're doing enough and you try to do too much and you can get in trouble."

Stuart has put himself into a position where he'll either remain in Detroit or land a big-money deal elsewhere, and certainly for more than one season. He said the opportunity to win factors in, in addition to compensation, which at $3.5 million for the regular season might be as high as the Wings can offer annually considering their other roster concerns.

"There are a lot of great players in there, but you'd never know it if you just walk into the room," Stuart said. "It's hard to figure out who the superstars in the room are. Getting a chance to watch a guy like (Nicklas) Lidstrom every day is a treat. It's been real easy for me to fit in."

Stuart has helped solidify a defense that has had to be rebuilt several times over the last 10 years because of the premature losses of premier backliners Vladimir Konstantinov (auto accident) and Jiri Fischer (health concerns). With Nicklas Lidstrom, Rafalski, Kronwall and Stuart, Detroit has as formidable a top four as they've had in a decade.

"He's been a great fit since he joined the team," Lidstrom said of Stuart, whose journey started as part of a package the Sharks sent to Boston in exchange for Joe Thornton in November of 2005. "He's that physical presence I think we needed, and … you can match him up against the other team's top lines."

"I've definitely had a lot of experiences in the last two years, played with a lot of great players," Stuart added. "If you can take good things away from all of that, it's going to make you a better player for sure. It was tough at times."