From the pregame enthusiasm, the physicality in-game and three goals and 11 points in 20 games, Chris Stewart was just about everything the Minnesota Wild could have wanted for when he was added at the trade deadline in March.
Stewart fit in with his new Minnesota teammates immediately, and he added production along the way. His pregame chugging of Red Bull, locker room sprints, big smile and big personality helped keep the team loose during the Wild’s second-half run to a playoff berth.
Minnesota is left to weigh whether Stewart’s presence would be just as important in a long-term return.
While goaltender Devan Dubnyk made the biggest impact of the Wild’s midseason additions and will certainly be the focus in the offseason for general manager Chuck Fletcher, Stewart is another unrestricted free agent who is hoping to return to Minnesota.
"Hopefully there’s an opportunity for me to come back here," Stewart said after the season. "Me and my family both enjoyed our time here; thought the fit was perfect. It’s a good group of guys here. I think the future’s definitely bright here."
Stewart was energized back in a playoff race with the Wild. A year in Buffalo was tough on the big veteran forward who had played in the playoffs three of the previous four seasons in St. Louis and Colorado until the Blues sent Stewart to the Sabres in another trade-deadline move last year.
When Fletcher sent a 2017 second-round draft pick to Buffalo for Stewart, he was adding one ingredient which was missing in Minnesota. Stewart added size and a tough mindset.
Not coincidentally, the player who had tallied more than 100 penalty minutes in two separate NHL seasons, dropped the gloves to protect a teammate in his fourth game with the Wild. He had three fighting majors and 25 penalty minutes in 20 regular-season games with Minnesota. Along the way, he also scored three goals, had eight assists and was a plus-4 while playing much of the time with Mikko Koivu at center.
"I think you could see he was hungry when he got in," Koivu said in April. "He was very motivated to get into our team. I think his personality, it fits well. He’s an outgoing guy. I think that always helps to get comfortable as soon as you can to the team, which is not always an easy thing to do . . . At the end it’s about the work ethic and what you’re willing to do. Playing on the same line you can see that each and every night, and as a teammate you appreciate that."
The finish, like the rest of the team, wasn’t what Stewart hoped for. He went without a goal and had two assists in eight playoff games. He tried to play through a separated shoulder before missing the final two games.
"I had nothing; it sucks," Stewart said of his shoulder after the season. "It’s just frustrating. You want to get out there, you want to help your team. Toughest job in sport is watching. It wasn’t a storybook ending, but I’m still happy with the opportunity I had here."
Stewart, a former first-round draft pick by the Colorado Avalanche, has been on four teams in seven NHL seasons. He’s twice scored more than 20 goals in a season and had 18 goals in 48 games during the 2013 lockout season.
"He’s the type of guy that certainly has a chance to be an ‘X’ factor if you want to call him that," Wild head coach Mike Yeo said of Stewart in the playoffs. "He’s a guy that has a physical edge. He’s a big body. He’s going to play the game hard. I’ve been happy with how he’s played the game systematically."
In a weak free-agent market, Stewart might have suitors. He showed well for himself at the end of the season in Minnesota, as much for his attitude as his play. But Stewart wants to return and the Wild will have to decide how much he’s worth.
Stewart waited for an uncertain future at the trade deadline when he knew his name was churning through the rumor mill. He said he’ll approach free agency in much of the same way, waiting for the possibilities.
"That’s a couple months away, I don’t really want to think about it yet," Stewart said. "There’s been a lot of hockey lately and a lot of moving. I’m just going to unwind and have some family time."