With Stuart back in the fold the Bruins get a gritty, physical leader that until this past season had not missed a game over the course of his first two NHL seasons.
"Stewie's a high-character player," general manager Peter Chiarelli told the media at Bruins development camp Friday. "He had a few injuries this year, he came back after that hand infection, and he added to our lineup then. Even before, going back to when he first hurt his hand, it was coming off a great hit and he answered the call against L.A., so his injuries even speak to his character. We're happy to have him in the mix."
Stuart was limited to 56 regular season games and four games in the playoffs due to a broken sternum, broken pinkie finger and cellulitis infection in his finger. In those 56 games, he tallied 2 goals and 5 assists.
In a conference call with the media Friday, Stuart said he expected his injury-plagued season to effect contract negotiations and was fine with the way things turned out.
"I'm very excited about the deal," Stuart said. "I expected after the season that if I was going to get a deal, it was going to be a one-year deal and I'd see how I played it. Hopefully I can have a great year and hopefully a long-term deal is in the future.
"I was very happy with how I played but unfortunately some injuries -- stuff out of my control -- but that stuff happens and that's part of the game. No matter what, it gets factored in and I think that's fair and it should. But to get a long-term deal, you have to earn it and probably play as close to a full season as possible."
Both Chiarelli and Stuart acknowledged the Bruins' cap situation as another factor in not being able to agree to a long-term deal. Both sides however expressed their desire to either sign an extension during the 2010-11 season or next summer, when Stuart becomes an unrestricted free agent.
"We gave him a little bit of a bump from his qualifying offer, and I look at it as a bridge contract to something more," Chiarelli said. "He's a UFA next year, so we'll evaluate him during the year and we may extend him during the year.
"[Stuart] was OK with a one-year. That point that I made earlier about building on to something more, to have a little more flexibility next year."
Stuart felt the same way and pointed to the direction and potential of the Bruins being Stanley Cup contenders as reason for compromising for now. The Minnesota native is excited for the upcoming season and can't wait to get back to Boston for camp.
"Our team is different as you know and with cap issues I definitely wasn't expecting a long-term deal," he said. "I'm very excited about our team and have always been excited for the last few years. We're building in the right direction. Last year was very disappointing, how it ended, for everybody. But I think we have the right guys in place, the right staff, the right management, to really make a push.
"I think the moves we've made in the offseason have been great as well as the guys we already have in place. You always get excited for the season during the summer and just the direction we've been going in the last few years, it's going to be special."
As far as his health, specifically the status of his infection, Stuart finished his antibiotics shortly after the season ended and has some final tests scheduled that he is confident he will pass.
"Everything has been great," Stuart said of his health. "I got off the antibiotics a couple of weeks after the season ended and obviously that was great to get done with those. That was a big weight off my shoulders. The finger has been great and I've been working out with it without any problems. I also skated and no problems with that. I am going to do some follow up appointments six weeks from when I ended the antibiotics and I should pass with flying colors."
With Stuart signed, that now leaves restricted free agent forwards Blake Wheeler and Campbell and most likely rookie Tyler Seguin to be signed with the team salary cap figure now at approximately $57.4 million, leaving roughly $2 million to spend under the $59.4 NHL salary cap.
The Bruins may be able to buy some cap space if and when Wheeler and Campbell receive salary arbitration awards in the next three weeks, as the team will be granted a 48-hour period in which it can buy out any player on the roster to accommodate the awards. Or the Bruins could simply walk away from one or both of the awards, making Wheeler and Campbell unrestricted free agents, but that is unlikely to happen. It is likely that the Bruins will have to trade some salary to fill out their roster.
But for now, it appears Chiarelli will wait until Wheeler and Campbell receive their arbitration awards, which could come down between July 20 and Aug. 4.
"Right now we're standing pat," he said. "You look out here, there might be a few guys that are going to challenge [for a spot on the B's roster]. I like our prospect depth. Right now I'm standing pat. That may change, but right now I'm standing pat."
If the awards do push the Bruins over the cap, Chiarelli is prepared to do what he has to do to remedy the situation.
"Well then I'll have to make a move," he bluntly said when asked about such a scenario.
With Dennis Wideman traded last month in exchange for Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell, the Bruins now appear to have their top 6 defensemen in place barring a trade: Stuart, Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference and Matt Hunwick. Adam McQuaid, who saw action down the stretch run of the regular season and the playoffs, should also challenge for a spot.
Chiarelli said he will re-sign McQuaid, a restricted free agent, most likely to a two-way contract.
"He's earned a shot, so we have to get him signed also," Chiarelli said.
Murphy is an ESPNBoston.com contributor and has covered the Bruins and the NHL for the last eight seasons.