Stewart: 'It's All Up from Here'
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Stewart was placed on waivers by the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 6, as the team was en route to Anaheim where they would play two days later. No team made a waiver claim on the 27-year-old Quebec native, so he remained on the Canes’ roster.
“No one’s job is safe. It’s a business,” he said. “At the same time, I don’t hold any ill-will. I still love the city. I still love the team. I’ve just got to play better. It was a wake-up call, and I’ve got 25 games here to show that I belong, that I can contribute and be the player I was signed here to be.”
After playing with Atlanta for a season, Stewart joined the Hurricanes on the second day of free agency last summer. At risk for moving yet again – this time against his choice – being waived obviously made for a trying day.
“You sign two years here, you definitely want to be here for two years,” he said. “I had higher expectations for myself. I think I’ve responded pretty well in the last three games.”
That’s been the consensus – that Stewart played his best hockey of the season on the three-game road trip. In Montreal on Monday, that effort was rewarded with enhanced minutes on the first line when Tuomo Ruutu left the game injured. Stewart played over 10 minutes in that game and had four shots.
He recorded an assist on Friday night in Colorado, as he dangled with the puck from behind the net, split two Avalanche defenders and found Tim Brent with a sharp pass. Stewart has been at his best when he uses his speed and size to his advantage.
He did so to ripe offensive production last season in Atlanta, as he recorded a career-high 39 points (14g, 25a). His 14-point (6g, 8a) total this season is off-pace of that marker, and it was originally thought that, combined with winger Alexei Ponikarovsky, the two could offset the loss of Erik Cole and his 52-point season. But, that philosophy may be shifting now.
“It’s just doing those little things they want me to do on a consistent basis: playing physical and not necessarily worrying about the points,” Stewart said. “We’re not that big of a team. I sort of have to be that guy to almost play out of my element in a more physical role. That’s something I’m trying to adapt to and working with the coaching staff on a day-to-day basis in trying to contribute that way.”
Measuring in at 6-foot-3, 230-pounds, it’s not that Stewart’s not always been a physical guy. It’s just that Muller wants to mold him into more of a defined role. Last season in Atlanta, he said he “played without a leash.”
“They almost just threw me out there and whatever happened, happened as a top six forward last year,” he said. “But, different years, different coaching staffs, you have different roles and you have to adjust to that. It’s a day-to-day process, but now I’m more open to what they want and trying to do that to the best of my ability.”
With Ruutu, the team leader in hits (106), out of the lineup, Stewart’s role becomes even more magnified. Stewart’s 55 hits rank 9th on the team.
“[Ruutu] is very physical, and it opens up room for Staal,” Stewart said. “I had a chance to play with Staal last game. I hit him with a couple of passes and made room for him. That’s what I have to do for my linemates: play with a big body and be a force physically.”
Stewart said that, when waived, he had some conversations with Muller, who relayed his thoughts on what type of player he wants Stewart to be.
“We weren’t necessarily butting heads, but you’ve got to show the coach something if you want more ice,” Stewart said. “I still have confidence in my game, and I still feel that I can contribute.”
So, that’s what Stewart will focus on – contributing in his defined role. Being placed on waivers, as he said, is a part of the business, albeit an unfortunate one. But it seems to have lit a fire in Stewart, perhaps the ultimate goal of the move.
“The only thing I can do now is use that as motivation,” he said. “I’m not going to sit back, sulk and worry about it. It’s all up from here.”