RALEIGH, N.C.—When Anthony Stewart was placed on waivers on February 6, it appeared as if his time in Carolina had come to an end. The Quebec native had just five goals and six assists through 50 games, delegated, for the most part, to a fourth line role.
But when no team claimed him during his 24-hour window of availabilty, Stewart remained in Raleigh and carried on as a member of the Hurricanes.
With his back against the wall, Stewart has been forced to prove his worth. And so far he’s responded well, playing some of the best hockey of his career as of late.
While it may not be evident in the box score, his game has risen to a whole new level since being placed on waivers. He’s creating more offense, skating better and working harder than earlier in the 2011-12 season, undoubtedly motivated by the wake-up call he received last month.
Stewart, 27, was rewarded for his recent efforts on Thursday when head coach Kirk Muller penciled him into the Canes’ top line alongside Eric Staal and Jiri Tlusty.
Carolina may have fallen 3-2 to the first place New York Rangers that night, but Stewart had one of his best games of the season and made the most of the opportunity at hand.
“It was time (for me) to put up or shut up,” he said. “It was nice to get the added ice time. I thought our line played well, we just couldn’t find the back of the net.”
Stewart has averaged 1.5 shots per game since February 6, a step up after only 0.8 SOG/G through his first 50 games. He may have just one goal over that span, but his improved play has been noticeable.
“I thought he was skating well,” Muller said. “Against a team that doesn’t give up much I thought he opened it up a few times. He was direct, had some shots on net. I thought he had a good game.”
Muller’s system calls for wingers to skate deep and aggressively in the offensive zone, and Stewart’s abrasive nature and strong forechecking ability makes him a good fit for that style of play. Staal and Tlusty have developed great chemistry over the past few months, and Stewart’s hard-nosed game complemented them well.
A big reason why Stewart was unable to produce most of the season was the lack of talent around him. But that wasn’t an issue on Thursday, and the quality of line mates he was given made a difference.
“Staal is a four-star center in this league,” he said. “He gives you that chance you need to be successful. It was a lot of fun playing with him.”
Part of Muller’s philsophy as a coach is to always hold his players accountable for their performance, and he stuck to his convictions by allowing Stewart to skate on the top line on Thursday. “What have you done for me lately” is a commonly used phrase in sports, and it’s one that Carolina’s bench boss operates by.
It’s highly unlikely that Stewart will settle into a spot on the top line—or even in the top-six, for that matter—but the fact that he was given this opportunity is a testament to how far he’s come over the past 10 games. He’s earned the respect of his coach, and if anything, given Muller a reason to keep him in the lineup for the second year of his contract with the Hurricanes.
When asked, Muller was unsure if Stewart would remain on the top line on Saturday when the Tampa Bay Lightning visit the RBC Center.
Andrew Hirsh is a credentialed member of the Carolina Hurricanes media. For updates on the Canes from the press box and locker room, follow him on Twitter: @andrewhirsh