It’s not uncommon for NHL players to switch locations in the offseason, but most do it just once.
At the end of his recent breakout season, Anthony Stewart, then a restricted free agent, thought he would remain an Atlanta Thrasher. Then, when news broke of the team’s relocation, he thought he was headed to Winnipeg.
When the organization’s new management decided not to present him with a qualifying offer, making him free to sign with another team, he became a Carolina Hurricane. While pleased with the outcome, he couldn’t have foreseen any of that at the conclusion of his first full NHL season.
“You go and buy a parka, and then you have to return it,” he said.
The native of La Salle, Quebec, hasn’t had to invest in too much winter clothing throughout his NHL career, having suited up for the Florida Panthers, who drafted him 25th overall in an incredibly deep 2003 draft (since they share an agent, he roomed with No. 2 overall pick Eric Staal at the event in Nashville), and the Thrashers. That tour through the Southeast Divison has left him quite familiar with his new home.
”Carolina is very fast-paced, and skating is one of my strengths,” he said. “Seeing them play the last five or six years, they’re always close to making the playoffs. Having an opportunity to be in the playoff mix is exciting.”
It wasn’t until this past campaign that Stewart began to fully realize the potential that made him a prominent draft choice. His 39-point season (14g, 25a) marked a significant improvement over his previous best, a 59-game, 7-point stint with Florida the previous season. Asked what allowed him to make the jump from minor-league obscurity – he spent the entire 2009-10 season with the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves, often on the fourth line – to dependable top-nine forward at the highest level, Stewart cited improved preparation as one of the reasons.
“I was in shape, but not the proper shape,” said the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Stewart. “I’m a natural athlete that got away with being the biggest, fastest, strongest guy. It’s about doing more specific things that are going to make you successful on the ice.
“I had a great last summer working out with my brother, Wayne Simmonds and Joel Ward. They’re a great group of guys to work with.”
That group of NHL players includes his younger brother Chris, who has hit the 28-goal mark in each of the last two seasons with Colorado and St. Louis. The more immediate success of Chris Stewart, a high draft pick himself (18th overall to the Avalanche in 2006), was something that made Anthony re-evaluate his own situation.
“Seeing him put up big numbers motivated me,” said Anthony Stewart. “We’re the same person, same size and same skills. With the proper opportunity, there’s no reason I can’t do that too.”
Throughout his longer-than-expected journey through the minors, Stewart remained confident in his own abilities.
“I’m a firm believer in time and opportunity,” he said. “The GM in Atlanta (Rick Dudley), I know he believed in me and that I was going to get an opportunity to show what I could do. I knew that once I got 20 games, there would be no turning back.”
As for what attracted him to Carolina, Stewart first cited the success of Jussi Jokinen, who “bounced around a bit” between Southeast teams before running with his prolonged chance in Carolina. Jokinen, who scored 8 goals in 66 total games with the Tampa Bay Lightning, went on to net 30 in his first full season in Carolina.
Another plus was a phone call from Hurricanes’ Director of Hockey Operations Ron Francis, who effectively recruited Stewart while he was weighing his options on the open market last week.
“It brought me back to when I was 18 and was kind of a big shot,” said Stewart, who spent four productive seasons with the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs. “It was definitely a confidence boost.”
Already around six weeks into his offseason conditioning program with the same group of players, Stewart said that he hopes to continue to improve next season. Most of his offensive damage came in last season’s first half, as he burst onto the scene with a hat trick in game No. 4 but did not light the lamp over his last 23 contests.
“It’s a learning experience and there are going to be ups and downs,” he said. “You maybe read your own headlines a little bit, but everyone does that.
”Not finishing that well just gave me even more motivation.”
While Stewart has already had an informal, face-to-face meeting with Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice in Ontario, he said that he doesn’t yet know where he might fit in to the team’s plans. Until then, he’ll continue to prepare in the hopes of taking an even bigger step forward next season.
“I’ll have some time to work on my game show everyone the player they think I can be and that I know I can be,” he said.