Mark Stuart traded to Atlanta

FELDY: Rochester native Mark Stuartis going from a division-leading NHL team to one that is battling just to make the Eastern Conference playoffs. The 26-year-old Rochester native was traded just more than an hour ago from the Boston Bruins to the Atlanta Thrashers.

Stuart has been a healthy scratch in recent weeks for the Bruins, after returning from a hand injury. But the former first-round pick was dealt today mainly because of salary cap reasons. The Bruins needed to clear space to acquire Tomas Kaberlefrom Toronto, so they sent Stuart (and his $1.675 million cap hit) and former Gopher Blake Wheeler($2.2 million cap hit) to Atlanta in exchange for center Rich Peverleyand minor league defenseman Boris Valabik. Peverley and Valabik together earn barely more than $2 million.

Once the Stuart/Wheeler trade was completed, Boston sent another former WCHA standout, Joe Colborne(a former first-round pick who played college hockey at Denver), and its 2011 first round draft pick to Toronto for Kaberle.

So, what does this mean for Stuart?

First and foremost, it means he gets to give life in Atlanta a two-month trial run to see if he would like to play there in coming years. Stuart will be just 27 when the season ends, and he'll be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career. (Obvious question: Might the Wild be interested in him? We'll get back to that point later.)


Second, The move reunites Stuart and Wheeler with Thrashers head coach Craig Ramsay, who was an assistant in Boston until taking the job in Atlanta this season. But his injury issues over the past two seasons have left some Bruins fans disgruntled with a former first-round pick they perceive as injury-prone. The reality is, Stuart is a gritty player. He plays a style of game that can lead to injuries. But his name was batted around a lot after last season as a potential captain of the team, so you know players and coaches around the NHL have a lot of respect for the way he plays. He has a goal and four assists in 31 games this season (Wheeler has 11-16--27 this season).

And, third, Stuart will likely see more playing time in Atlanta, too. The Thrashers need his physical presence on the blue line. Stuart (6-feet-2, 213 pounds) and Wheeler are being viewed in Atlanta as guys who can help take the Thrashers from tied for ninth in the Eastern Conference up into the top eight and a playoff berth.

The Thrashers now have the market cornered on Rochester natives, as they also hold former Century goalie Alex Kangas' rights. Other Minnesota connections in the Atlanta system: former Cup winner Dustin Byfuglien(Roseau), forward and ECHL All-Star Michael Forney(Thief River Falls) and forward/draft pick Tanner Lane(Detroit Lakes).

So, whether the Thrashers reach the postseason or not, Stuart will have the chance in June to pick where he wants to play in 2011-12 and beyond. Which begs the question, is there a chance he ends up in a Minnesota Wild uniform next season?

It's a great thought, but it looks unlikely. Of the eight d-men the Wild have on their NHL roster right now (Burns, Barker, Schultz, Scandella, Spurgeon, Stoner, Zanon, Zidlicky), six are between the ages of 20-28. And with guys such as Justin Falk, Tyler Cuma(his injuries not withstanding) and Nate Prosserin the minors, it seems unlikely that Wild GM Chuck Fletcherwould be willing to pay the kind of money Stuart may get in other places (it's reasonable to think he could get $2 million per year or more in a free agent deal).

As for Stuart potentially getting back into the playoffs, this time with the Thrashers, it could come down to the final weeks of the season. Atlanta is currently tied for ninth in the East with Buffalo, two points behind eighth-place Carolina.

And, for anyone who wondering if the Thrashers play near Minnesota again this season, they don't. They played the Wild, in Atlanta, back in November (a 5-1 Thrashers win). Just two of Atlanta's remaining 23 games are against Western Conference opponents.

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