What will Oilers’ new assistant Mark Stuart bring to the coaching workers? Q&A

What will Oilers’ new assistant Mark Stuart bring to the coaching employees? Q&A

When Oilers bench boss Jay Woodcroft started connecting with his hockey contacts in his search to fill an assistant coaching vacancy on his staff, naturally one of his calls was to his brother, Todd.

Their conversations are often long. This one wasn’t.

“I’ve got a list of one person,” Todd told Jay. “There’s only one person I would hire. That’s Mark Stuart.”

Jay did his due diligence and ultimately a long list was whittled down to his brother’s recommendation. Stuart, a longtime NHL defenceman, was hired July 26 to replace the departing Brian Wiseman as the third assistant coach.

As far as Todd is concerned, Stuart, 38, is the perfect choice.

Stuart was an assistant coach last season at Colorado College, his alma mater. The previous campaign, he was a member of Todd’s staff at the University of Vermont. It was a volunteer position, but Stuart didn’t treat it that way.

Todd had him involved in important decisions immediately — and not just concerning the team’s blueliners. He could tell Stuart was committed and eager.

“Mark was at the office every single day before six o’clock in the morning,” Todd said. “He did it because he wanted to have some coaching experience — to learn.”

The way Stuart worked as a coach reminded Todd of how he conducted himself as a player. Stuart was in his final NHL season in 2016-17 with the Jets when Todd came on as an assistant.

Stuart had gone from an alternate captain the season before to a regular healthy scratch. His determination to make a difference and set a positive example never waned.

Todd was tasked with skating the scratches when needed. His relationship with Stuart blossomed as they learned more about each other during all that time spent together.

Todd recalls a day in Chicago when the Jets regulars weren’t scheduled to skate and there was a mix-up with the ice time for the scratches. The other Jets sub player thought it was great; it was a chance to leave the rink. Stuart didn’t see it that way.

“Mark being Mark, he showed him the dark side,” Todd said.

“He wanted to work. He wanted to be ready for whenever his next time was to play.”

Stuart got his way and he and his teammate were put through the paces on the ice by Todd.

“I got a little ornery,” Stuart said, laughing at the memory. “But we ended up skating. It was a little bit more of an intense scratch skate.

“You’ve got to be a good teammate and a good guy out of the lineup. There’s nothing wrong with showing some emotion as well.”

For Todd, it was an eye-opener {that a} veteran at the end of his career wanted to do whatever he could to get better.

“That’s why I wanted to be around him, and that’s why I know he’s going be a great coach — why he is a great coach,” he said. “He doesn’t take any shortcuts.”

Part of Stuart’s job responsibilities with the Oilers will be to assist and train players looking for more ice time, much like Todd did for him. He’ll also start in the eye-in-the-sky role for games.

Stuart arrived in Edmonton at the end of August with his wife, Christina, and their three young children — daughter, Meadow, and sons, Sullivan and McCoy. He chatted with The Athletic recently before dashing out to pick up his eldest child, Meadow, from kindergarten.

What intrigued you about this Oilers job after a couple years in the college ranks?

The opportunity to coach at this level, in this league, in a place like this, with this roster and this staff, it was extremely appealing. I’ve gotten to know the few people here over the years as far as what they bring as coaches and as people. That was a big draw for sure.

It’s an organization, a team that’s had some success, but is continuing to build. There are a lot of exciting players to work with, and a lot of people in the right spots that are doing good work. I feel very fortunate now to be a part of it and to try to help continue it in the right direction.

I had a chance to speak with Todd Woodcroft. He naturally speaks very highly of you. He said that when Jay was asking for recommendations you were the only person he mentioned. You’ve only been coaching for a few years. How have you been able to find your voice so quickly and feel comfortable and confident?

It’s something that you’re working at every day, and you continue to grow. If you talk to any of these guys that have been doing it for over a decade or more, they’re always learning and always adapting to the game and to the new players. That’s something I try to do every day as well, even though it’s been a little bit younger in the process as far as my coaching career.

You get a little bit of a taste of the mentorship side of it later on in your career. I was lucky enough to play on some good teams and some good organizations and with some good young players where I was able to do some of that mentoring. Coaching was something I thought about more and more as I got towards the end of my playing career. As I got into it, after my playing career, it’s something that you fall in love with, and I really enjoyed doing.

Spending time with the coaches and spending time with the players and teaching, that’s what really draws me to it. That’s why I enjoy doing it every day.

Todd said he could sense you might become a coach in your last season in Winnipeg. You weren’t playing as much, and you were working a lot with him because he’d skate you. Did you catch the bug then? Is that when you realized you could mentor young players as a coach at some point?

Yeah, that was a big turning point for me.

You’re getting a little older and I wasn’t a regular in the lineup. But it offered me a couple of opportunities. It offered me a little bit more time to maybe spend with younger players, and then more of an opportunity to spend with coaches. I spent a lot of time with Todd over those games that I wasn’t in the lineup. And you’re paying a lot more attention watching the game. You’re getting a little bit (of a) different view. A lot of those games you’re either watching in the room on TV or, for the most part, you’re going up to the press box, and you’re watching it from up there. You’re just getting a completely different view of the game from up there. But you’re still in every meeting with the coaches. You’re just looking at the game a little bit differently as opposed to when you’re playing and you’re right in it. You’re stepping back a little bit.

That’s not where I wanted to be. Nobody does. No player does. But that’s where I was at that point. I knew it was getting towards the end whether I liked it or not. So, definitely that time was a turning point for me where I started thinking more and more about the next step. I knew I wanted to stay in the game in some capacity. I’m lucky enough that coaching was an option.


Jay Woodcroft (Sergei Belski / USA Today)

You go from one Woodcroft to another. Have you already started noticing similarities between Todd and Jay?

The similarities are pretty apparent right away. It’s how detailed they are, (and) how passionate about the game. But each coach is their own person, too, so they have their own style, their own way of doing things. But the things that definitely stand out right away (are) the passion, the attention to detail and just how much they care. That comes off right away.

The staff notices that from both, but also the players notice that. That goes a long way. People aren’t going to listen to you until they know that you care — not just about themselves, but about you and making you better. That’s what drew me to Todd right away. We spent a lot of time together, but he put as much time and care into me — a guy who wasn’t playing and in the lineup — as he did to the regulars. Now, obviously, that’s in different ways because you’ve got to coach the players that are playing. But that was something that built our relationship right away.

Along those lines in terms of caring for players, Jay told me one of the things he liked about your career path is that you just finished playing. That way you can “speak the language of today’s players.” What does that mean to you and how will you do that?

The game has changed quite a bit from when I first came in, and in a lot of good ways. As a player, it’s the speed of the game, the way it’s coached. That’s what drew me to coaching, too; it’s always developing. You’ve got to stay on top of trends. That’s why I love doing it.

As far as the language and speaking to a player, it goes back to my path. I was a first-round pick (in 2003), played on some great teams, played on some not-so-great teams. I went from playing some decent minutes in the middle of my career with a big role on some teams and wearing a letter to being a healthy scratch for 20-25 games in a row. I’ve been in the highs and lows of the game, and everybody goes through them. Those experiences have served me well.

Each player learns differently. Each player communicates differently. As coaches, you have to get to know the individual and you have to know what makes them tick and how they like to learn and how you get the best out of them. Going through those different experiences and playing for different coaches, having different mentors, and then having some really good veteran players that I played with as a young player, I knew what I liked from them. The way they treated me and the way they spoke to me and what I learned from them, I take all of that. I try to implement that into the way I coach.

Who did you learn from as a young player, Mark?

There are a lot of names that stick out to me. In those early days in Boston, we had a lot of really good veteran players. Shane Hnidy was one of them. Aaron Ward. I’m thinking of mostly defencemen here. Zdeno Chara. You’re a young guy and you’re watching Zdeno Chara every day — the way he conducts himself on the ice, in the weight room, off the ice. I don’t know if there’s many better guys to learn from as far as how to work. I felt fortunate that I was able to learn from guys like that.

A guy that was around my same age — even a little bit younger — that I learned a lot from was Patrice Bergeron. He’s still doing it. Just a special, special player, a special human being.

I was going to wait to ask you this, but you and Bergeron are part of that amazing 2003 draft class. Who do you think will be the last man standing?

Oh … (pauses) … I don’t know. That’s so hard to say. I’m not sure. But it’s good to see there’s still some (players) doing it and doing it really well. Some amazing players came out of that one.

You played against several of these Oilers players a few years ago. What do you think about the way they’ve been able to grow in the last few years since you stopped playing — most recently with last season’s playoff success?

Even back towards the end of my career, you saw the talent that they had — especially the guys that were considered young players at that time. You know how far they’ve come. You knew that it was only a matter of time before they became what they are now in this league.

Another fun part of this is having that chance to coach some of these guys that I was able to see up close as a player when they were first breaking into the league. At that point, I wasn’t playing a ton against them, but I was able to see them up close. It’s no surprise that they’ve had the success they’ve had.

One guy you know pretty well is Evander Kane, your teammate in Atlanta and Winnipeg. What will it be like to work with him again?

I’m excited. I’m excited to see Kaner again and work with Kaner. He’s a guy who’s moved around a bit since I played with him but is in a really good spot here. You saw the success he had last season. I know he’s extremely excited to be back in the organization and the staff are extremely excited to have him back. He’s in a really good spot. I’m excited to see him again. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him.

I can pretty much talk about the whole roster. I’m excited to work with each and every one of them. Of course, there’ll be a little bit more with some than others. I’m excited to start building those relationships.

Kane has had some success in his career, but he seemed to really take off in Edmonton. Compared to Atlanta and Winnipeg when he was younger, is there a reason why you think he really shot off last season? Is it simply age and maturity?

It’s probably a little bit of everything. With every player, it’s got to be the right fit for the player. Some players are better fits in different organizations. As a forward, you’re comfortable with certain players. Kaner’s game, his style of play, fits really well with this roster. He was able to complement the guys he played with last year really well and had that success.

Of course, it’s maturity. Any player coming into this league (learns) it’s a hard league to be successful in. It takes time and it takes going through different experiences and those ups and downs. The more experiences you have, the more you grow. He’s definitely grown.

You said you started to notice things as you watched from up top late in your career. You’re going to be doing a lot of eye-in-the-sky work at first. What will you be focused on as you watch games as a coach?

You’re just trying to notice different subtleties about the game. It’s a completely different view from up there. Behind the bench, there’s a lot going on. You’re communicating with the players. You’re at ice-level view, so you can miss some things at times depending on what’s going on.

As an eye in the sky, whatever they need down there, whoever you’re communicating with, you’ve got that view up there where you can see more. It’s slower from up there. (Laughs.) You can see plays develop. You’re just trying to support the coaches on the bench and give them what they need. That’s going to be a big part of my job this year.

The game looks pretty easy from up there, doesn’t it?

(Laughs.) Maybe a little bit. It’s not an easy game. Well, it’s a little easier for some.

But being up there definitely slows it down a little more. You see a lot more from up there that you might not be able to see from the bench or from the ice. Maybe I just say that now because I entered this coaching profession, but it was extremely beneficial for me to watch games up there.

Lastly, I would think a recently retired defenceman with almost 700 games of NHL experience would have a lot to teach young blueliners, especially because there will probably be a couple of them on the Oilers roster. How are you going to mesh with Dave Manson since he’s the person who runs the defence? How can you help in that regard?

I know that Manse has way more experience as a player and as a coach than me. I don’t know how much help he’ll need from me. (Laughs.)

I’m excited about working with everybody wherever I’m needed. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Manse these last few weeks. He’s a guy that I know I’m really going to enjoy working with. We’re lucky to have him here on the back end.

About the Author: Mofazzal Hossen

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