For Bruins defenseman Mark Stuart, next season can't begin soon enough.
After playing only 56 regular-season games and four games in the playoffs in 2009-10 due to a broken sternum, broken pinkie finger and cellulitis infection in his finger, Stuart immediately started training and working toward what he hopes will be a healthy and productive 2010-11. On July 9 he signed a $1.675 million one-year contract with the Bruins and shortly after that passed his final tests to determine if the cellulitis was completely gone.
As Stuart pointed out in a recent phone conversation with ESPNBoston.com, he feels as if he has already been through a mini-training camp.
"With all the time I missed and just being off the ice for so long, I've worked out a lot and now I'm skating a lot so it feels like I've kind of been in training camp already," Stuart said. "I really can't wait to get going and start the season."
Of course there is some added excitement to the 2010-11 season opener since it will take place in Prague, Czech Republic, and Stuart is just as excited as many Bruins fans are to see their team start overseas.
"That will be really cool and exciting," Stuart said of the Bruins facing the Coyotes Oct. 9-10 in Prague. "It will be a unique experience and I'm sure everyone is looking forward to that."
But what Stuart, his teammates and fans are really looking forward to is redeeming themselves from their monumental playoff collapse last May when they blew a 3-0 series lead and 3-0 Game 7 lead to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Since then, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli has been busy changing the roster via trades and the NHL Entry Draft.
Stuart watched from afar in his native Minnesota as Chiarelli dealt away his friend and fellow blueliner Dennis Wideman (along with the 15th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft and a 2011 third-round pick) for forwards Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell. While he was upset to see his friend and teammate go in the deal, he is excited about the potential of Horton helping to improve what was the NHL's worst offense in 2009-10.
"I was definitely keeping tabs on everything that's been going on with the team and moves they make," Stuart said. "Obviously with 'Wides' [Wideman] being one of my close friends, I was bummed to see him go but I'm excited about Horton and what he brings."
Stuart said he is also thrilled to play with second overall pick Tyler Seguin and at what the future of the organization looks like.
"You look at everything we've done to improve the current roster but also the future and it's exciting," he said. "All the young talent we have now and yet we were still able to keep the current core pretty much together, so that's great to see."
Many of the Bruins veteran leaders such as captain Zdeno Chara and forward Mark Recchi have on numerous occasions heaped praise on Stuart as a young leader and potential NHL captain. Is Stuart ready to take his leadership role to the next level and be there for that young core?
"Well, I've always enjoyed that role in the past," said the former USA Junior team and Colorado College captain. "But for me, it is something you have to earn from your teammates on and off the ice. You can't force it. I'm not just going to say, 'I'm a leader now.' You need to go out and prove you are and, yeah, I look forward to doing that."
As the team's NHLPA representative this past season, Stuart was already leading and representing his team off the ice. Last summer, NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly was ousted from that position and the union has yet to name a replacement. Since taking over the role from fellow rear guard Andrew Ference last fall, Stuart has done his best to keep his teammates informed of what's going on with the NHLPA and at the same time handled his position as a valuable learning experience.
"I was naturally happy and honored to take on that responsibility and would love to do so again this season, but if they decide when we vote to put someone else they deem more qualified or able to do the job better, then that's fine too," Stuart said. "There are a lot of guys putting in tons of time to make things better for our union and I've been happy to help out. Hopefully we can get more players to care about these matters because they're real and they have an effect on the game."
But while he will continue to try and better the state of the union and the game, Stuart's main focus now is on September when the Bruins will report to Wilmington, Mass., for training camp.
"I can't wait, really I just can't wait," he said. "I think we have a good team in place and I'm psyched to get going."