San Jose Sharks Sign Brad Stuart: Is He Worth The Cap-Hit and Were There Better Options?

Brad Stuart #7

Brad Stuart donning teal.. and …grey…

With Jim Vandermeer and Colin White unfortunately not returning to the Sharks next season, Sharks GM Doug Wilson looked to appease the masses of distraught, sobbing Sharks fans by replacing their departed heroes with what he hopes is a superior model, if that’s even possible, in Brad Stuart.***

As you would expect, the premium model will come with a higher price tag; Brad Stuart signed for a three-year, 10.8 million-dollar contract, a $3.6M cap-hit compared to Colin White and Jim Vandermeer’s matching one-year, one-million dollar deals last season, and to Doug Murray’s $2.5M cap-hit.

However, Brad Stuart also comes with an undeniably higher talent level than any of them, and Doug Wilson is surely hoping Stuart’s combination of size and smooth skating will equate to excellent performances on the ice for the next three seasons.

***(We will have to wait and see, but it could actually be Doug Murray or Jason Demers Stuart will end up replacing, not necessarily Vandermeer or Colin White. Just a side note).

What do I think of the signing? First of all, in a free agency climate where almost everyone is getting pay-raises due to the increase in the salary cap ceiling, especially defensemen, of which there has been a scarcity the last two years in the free agent and trading markets, Doug Wilson did well to keep Stuart’s new annual salary in the same ballpark as his last contract, even getting Stuart to take a very small pay-cut from $3.75M to $3.6M per year.

Of course, Wilson benefitted greatly in this negotiation from the fact Stuart had stated he wanted to come back to the west coast to be with his family, preferably San Jose, where his family has lived since he was traded for Joe Thornton. With the LA Kings set on defense, San Jose was not only his preferred destination on the west coast, but presumably one of the few with mutual interest, which put Doug Wilson in an even greater negotiating position.

When you factor that into the equation, I would argue Doug Wilson should have gotten Stuart to take an even bigger pay cut. This should have been the ultimate hometown discount. With Stuart’s desire to return home public knowledge, Doug Wilson had him absolutely over the barrel.

Consider that Barret Jackman, a comparable but in my opinion clearly superior defenseman to Stuart, gave his St Louis Blues a hometown discount of three-years, 9.5 million-dollars just to stay put, so why wasn’t Doug Wilson able to at the very least match that when he had to know Stuart’s desire to return to his family and true “home” after years living away from them would likely trump all but the craziest of dollar disparities in contract offers from other teams? It’s a valid question.

But, at the end of the day, almost everyone else got a significant raise on UFA day, Stuart did not, and there is something to be said for that.

On the other hand, the relation of his new contract to his previous one is not really not what matters now anyway, for better or worse. Once the season rolls around, it won’t matter what players got raises from their last deals and what players didn’t. All that will matter is whether players like Brad Stuart are worth their new, current deals, or not. What matters is what value players are giving their teams for the money they are making now.

For example, on his new $4.6 million-dollars per season contract with the Vancouver Canucks, former-Florida Panther Jason Garrison received one of the biggest raises from his last season-salary of 700 thousand-dollars of any unrestricted free agent due to his huge breakout year on the back-end where he scored 17-goals, but I believe he has the potential to be one of the best values at his new cap-hit of any defenseman signed this offseason, provided his play continues on its current trajectory.

Of course, Garrison’s six-year term carries its risks, but with the in my opinion inferior Matt Carle and Dennis Wideman both receiving contracts with cap-hits in excess of 5.25 million-dollars, it is reasonable to assume Garrison would have commanded in the 5.5 million range as well had Vancouver only been willing to offer a four-to-five year term, and I prefer the six-year term with the significantly lower cap-hit.

So the real questions are, is Brad Stuart worth a $3.6M cap-hit for the next three years, and is his signing the best use of the Sharks cap-space?

My answer: well, it could be worse. If you throw out the “worth” and “best use of cap-space” parts the Sharks did get better. Brad Stuart is better than Colin White and Jim Vandermeer; there’s little debate about that. But just about anyone the Sharks could have signed for more than the one-million dollars they paid White and Vandermeer would have been better, and unfortunately the aforementioned questions of worth are very important ones. And no, I don’t think Stuart was the best use of the cap space.

Why not? Brad Stuart is one of those players who, if you only saw him play for twenty seconds, you would think he was close to being an all-star, maybe someone in the league of a Mark Giordano, for instance. It’s rare to find good defensemen who possess both elite size and elite mobility, but Stuart, while not elite in either area, is a fine specimen of athleticism and physicality, and he skates very well for his size. He even handles the puck with confidence, not something you normally see from quote “defensive-defensemen.” Defensemen with that combination of traits do not grow on trees.

However, Stuart is similar to Jay Bouwmeester in that the sum of his parts does not add up to a greater whole or even cohesive whole in the way you would expect them to. For example, based on his 6’4″, 215 lbs frame, elite skating, nice hands, and hard shot, Bouwmeester should put up 50+ points a year on the backend, if not 60, but he has failed to crack more than 5 goals or 30 points for the last three seasons now.

Still, Bouwmeester’s individual parts are obviously even better than Stuart’s, but it’s the same idea in that they both combine size, athleticism, and smooth skating into very attractive packages, yet those packages do not yield the overall positive impacts on the ice for their teams that you would expect as a result.

Where do players like Bouwmeester and Stuart fall short in my opinion? I will explain using the terminology “physical skill,” the way I mean it.

Any hockey quality that derives from a player’s body and not stemming from the brain is what I call “physical talent” or “physical skill.” This includes size, strength, skating, skill with the puck, passing (but not play-making creativity or “vision”), and shooting. For example, in terms of physical skill, Bouwmeester is probably the best defenseman in the NHL. Brent Burns would be very high up there too at 6’5″ 219 lbs with his level of skill skating the puck. As for Brad Stuart, he may not be at that #1 defenseman level in terms of pure physical skill, but he’s easily a top-four, quality defenseman in that area, even top-three.

Where Stuart is not at a top-four defenseman level, in my opinion, is everywhere else, all the areas of a player’s game you don’t notice upon first impression just watching them for twenty seconds. The hockey sense, the reads, the decision-making, the fundamentals, the bad turnovers.

In the same way that Bouwmeester should put up 50-plus points per season but does not even get close because the mental side of his game does not come close to matching his physical talent, Stuart seems to be missing something on that end of the spectrum as well that keeps everything from coming together for him on the ice.

Another way to characterize the problems I see with Stuart’s game as a “shutdown defenseman” has to do with the fact that Stuart was actually drafted (by the Sharks) as an offensive-defenseman coming out of the WHL, and he started his career that way in the NHL, too, until it became clear that he could not produce enough offensively to succeed in that role, with him still having never notched 40-points in a season.

It seems at some point, perhaps upon being traded to the offensive-defenseman-rich 2008 Detroit Red Wings at the ’08 NHL trade deadline, he or possibly his coaches realized, hey, he’s plenty big and strong to be a “shutdown defenseman,” not something you can say for many offensive-defensemen, and he can even skate well, something you can’t always say about “shutdown defensemen,” so why not just have him forget about offense and play the role of a defensive specialist?

That seemed to be thinking there, but what you really get in the end is an offensive-defenseman trying to play the role of a defensive-defenseman. And while Stuart and the Red Wings thought his high level of “physical skill,” his combination of size, physicality, and skating, meant he could excel in that role, that’s not always how it works. You have a player who probably prided himself on his offense for most of his youth and junior career, who put a premium on his development as an offensive-defenseman more than a defensive-defenseman, and at the age of 28, he’s just supposed to switch roles and become an elite defensive-defenseman just because he stopped “focusing” on offense and started putting a premium on his defensive play?

Well, you could imagine some areas of the ultra-competitive NHL game where that transition might not work out as smoothly as Stuart envisioned it, and when I watch Stuart, that would be another way of describing what I see; those would be the areas he struggles in.

Sometimes he does simply look like an offensive-defenseman, albeit one with a very well-rounded physical skill set for both ends of the ice, pretending to be a defensive-defenseman.

Of course, with that said, I did not hang out with Stuart during his youth. I did not watch him develop in the WHL. It’s quite possible he always saw himself as a two-way defenseman who was just as good defensively as on offense, although that was never the impression I got when the Sharks drafted him. But the point is, my impression could be wrong, maybe he always saw himself as a two-way defenseman, and my above hypothesis is off base. Even so, whatever the reasons for it, he still looks like a player with the fundamentals of an offensive-defenseman pretending to be a defensive-defenseman.

However, an important factor to note in the evaluation of Stuart’s play in Detroit, which is what I’m basing my assessment off of as it’s the most recent, is that Stuart was forced to play right-defense in Detroit, his off-side, due to Ken Holland’s sub-par team-building in this area which has continually left the Red Wings with far more left-handed defensemen than right-handed ones, thus forcing some of their left-handed defensemen to play the right side.

Maybe all these more subtle problems in his game were just a result of playing his off-side, and we will see them corrected in San Jose, where he will go back to playing his preferred left side. If that is the case, that would turn my whole view of this signing around, because Stuart’s physical skill level is good enough that he would be a very good defenseman if the other side of his game was not holding him back.

However, I don’t think we can necessarily count on it, although it would not be the biggest stretch of all time either. But for now, I have to comment on the player I saw with the Red Wings, and that is a player whose net impact on the ice was more negative than positive for his team in my book, despite the talent he possesses.

In fact, at times Stuart seemed to be a weak link in the Wings defense. They play a very finesse-oriented, hockey sense-oriented, puck-possession game in Detroit, and Stuart’s poor reads stood out at times as a weak link in the chain.

The Sharks also aim to play a puck-possession game, also they go about it in a slightly different way with different systems, and if Stuart’s shortcomings with the Red Wings carry over to the Sharks, I can’t see them being any less damaging to the Sharks, or really any NHL team, despite their different systems.

Which brings me to the question, what would I have done instead of signing Stuart? If I were Sharks GM, Stuart is not where I would have looked first to supplement the Sharks defense at all. One option I would have looked at is Barret Jackman, who plays physical and can handle the forecheck like Stuart, but combines underrated skating with better hockey sense and a superior ability to move the puck out of his end and play both ends of the ice than Stuart.

I would have tried to sign him for a contract in the range of what the St Louis Blues signed him for, which almost certainly would not have gotten it done because it seems like he wanted to re-sign with the Blues, in which case I would have even been willing to up both the annual salary and term of the deal. Four years, 14.4 million, for the same cap-hit as Doug Wilson signed Stuart for and five-million/one-year more than Jackman signed for, may have tempted Jackman, and even a contract with a 4 million cap hit for Jackman would have at least been more preferable to me than Stuart at 3.6 million.

As long as it’s even somewhat close, my philosophy is to go with the better player when the comparison is that clear to you where you can easily identify who is better.

Another option I would have looked at was trading mid-to-low tier prospects for Zbynek Michalek, who comes with a $4M cap-hit through 2015 (or three more seasons). I believe Michalek is a significantly better two-way defenseman than Brad Stuart when at his best. He performed among the elite defenseman defensively during his years in Phoenix, which is likely why Dave Tippet and Don Maloney jumped at the opportunity to acquire him at the draft, and his excellent two-way play carried over to his first season with the Penguins before a slight drop-off last season, especially in the playoffs against the Philadelphia Flyers, although that series proved to be a cluster-eff for the entire Penguins team, especially on the penalty kill, and not the best sample to judge any individual player on.

Michalek is not as physical as Stuart or even Jackman, but he’s strong on his skates and still possesses the size to defend very effectively in the dirty areas of the ice against bigger forwards, much in the mold of a Marc-Eduoard Vlasic.

Where Michalek really separates himself from Stuart is, like Jackman, his hockey sense and ability to read the play in the defensive zone and move the puck out of the zone. And while Michalek does not put up big offensive numbers, in part because he does not get much power-play time, he has more ability and potential to contribute on the offensive side of the puck than Stuart, and probably even more than Jackman, although Jackman seemed to really improve in that area towards the end of last season and in the playoffs.

The Penguins only traded Michalek because they wanted to clear up cap space to make a run at signing Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, and the Coyotes were able to acquire him at what looks to the naked eye to be a very affordable price of two anonymous prospects and a third-round pick.

This is a price the Sharks could have easily beaten, so the fact that Doug Wilson, rarely one to miss out on his man in the trade market, did not beat the Coyotes’ offer suggests he did not try to, that he consciously chose Brad Stuart over Zbynek Michalek despite very similar prices and contract-terms. I cannot say I support or understand that decision.

Of course, it’s always possible Zbynek Michalek wanted to go back to Phoenix more than San Jose, and Pittsburgh decided to do right by him rather than taking a better offer from San Jose. But very doubtful. Teams just coming off an unexpected first-round trounce don’t usually forgo what’s best for them in favor of a player they’re trading. Neither do the teams who deliver the trouncing, for that matter.

It’s also possible San Jose was among the eight teams Zbynek Michalek could specify not to be traded to per the limited no-trade clause in his contract, but with such a limited number he had as eight teams, it’s likely Michalek did not waste any of his slots on even moderately successful teams, presumably choosing to instead use them to safeguard against getting shipped off to rebuilding teams like the Columbus Blue Jackets.

I highly doubt San Jose was on that list, which leaves only one likely and logical explanation: Doug Wilson chose Brad Stuart at his cost over Zbynek Michalek at his.

Another option, easily my number one option, would have been to match the Vancouver Canucks’ contract offer to Jason Garrison. However, everything I’ve read suggests that Garrison wanted to play with the Canucks in his home town, and even left money on the table from elsewhere to sign with the Canucks.

Of course, players always say that, and evidence to corroborate or disprove such stories rarely leaks to the hockey viewing public. Regardless, it’s doubtful Garrison would have come to San Jose for an offer comparable to Vancouver’s, but if I were looking to upgrade my defense, I would have gone hard after Garrison, which includes getting creative.

But I have read nothing to suggest Doug Wilson pursued any of those players. Stuart wanted to return to San Jose, and Wilson clearly wanted Stuart. If I had to take a guess, I would venture that Wilson was seduced by Stuart’s “physical skill” enough that he could not see the underlying problems with his game. Hopefully for Sharks fans, both my guess here about Doug Wilson and my assessment of Brad Stuart as a whole are wrong, and Doug Wilson’s assessment on Stuart is the one that’s right.

Written by Shark Circle

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