Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Curious Case of Anthony Stewart

Why would Winnipeg cut loose a young, cheap asset?

Kevin Cheveldayoff and Craig Heisinger have been modest, safe and predictable with their hockey decisions for the Winnipeg Jets.

Signing Andrew Ladd was a no-brainer. Staying away from over-priced unrestricted free-agents is clearly part of the plan. As is building from within, developing their draft picks, and maybe favouring a prairie birth certificate. This organization is insistent on laying a foundation and then building from the bottom up.

Thanks to a multi-year season ticket package, the euphoria surrounding this franchise will not wear off for at least three years, which is great news for the hockey operations department. The pressure, at least initially, is off. No matter what the team does on the ice, every seat in the MTS Centre will be sold, so there was no need to go all Glen Sather on July 1 and spend recklessly. Cheveldayoff and Heisinger know they can afford to be patient, to be stable.

That's what makes it so difficult to understand why the Jets would let Anthony Stewart walk away.

The 26 year-old Stewart is a former first-round pick, a Canadian World Junior champion who spent parts of four straight seasons in Florida's line-up but never established himself as a full-time NHLer. After Florida gave up on him two years ago, Atlanta signed him and kept him in the AHL the entire 2009-10 season. Last year Stewart graduated back to the NHL and played 80 games for the Thrashers contributing 14-goals, 39-points, and at times, gave a decent resemblance of a bona fide power forward.

After making only slightly above the league minimum last year ($632k), Stewart wasn't due for a huge raise. A raise yes, but nothing astronomical. His play last year suggested his upside was worth modestly investing in, especially with ample cap space and a roster that is thin on forwards.

But shortly after the draft Winnipeg announced they would not tender a qualifying offer to the restricted free agent, instead choosing to allow Stewart to leave for nothing via unrestricted free agency. It was strange and it didn't seem to fit the model that was being built. Here was a young, affordable player with the potential to easily outperform his next contract, and they take a pass.

Did the Jets believe Stewart over-achieved last year, that he isn't capable of being an NHL player? Was his attitude so poor that they didn't want him around other players? Did he not want to come to Winnipeg? Lot of questions, but so far very few answers.

Earlier this week Stewart signed in Carolina for a very reasonable $1.8 million over two years.

Jets fans are wondering why he was forced to move on.