DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 28: Joe Thornton #19 of the San Jose Sharks tries to control the puck in front of Brad Stuart #23 of the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena on October 28, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
One somewhat underreported angle of Brad Stuart's return to San Jose is that the defenseman was almost exclusively slotted into the right side on Detroit's blueline over the past four-and-half seasons while the expectation is that he'll be able to play left defense on the Sharks, likely on a pairing with either Brent Burns or Dan Boyle. What seems like a fairly trivial piece of information could prove to make the addition of Stuart a somewhat substantial gamble for the Sharks: if he has trouble transitioning to a side he hasn't played since being paired with Tom Preissing during his brief stint with the Kings in 2007, San Jose would be forced to move Douglas Murray back into the top-four role he struggled in last season and allocate $3.6 million in cap space to a third-pairing defender. After the jump, I'll discuss why I think the likelihood of the situation becoming that dire is pretty low.
A significant reason why there shouldn't be a ton of concern regarding Stuart's ability to switch over is that he has not only played left defense before in his career but has a left-handed shot. Stuart usually patrolled the left side during his first tour of duty in teal and did the same for the most part while shuffling from Boston to Calgary to Los Angeles in the two years following the Joe Thornton trade. The primary reason Mike Babcock and his coaching staff decided to play Stuart on his off-side is that the Red Wings just haven't had very many right-handed defensemen under their employ in recent seasons, with Ian White this past season and Brian Rafalski in the years prior being the only notable exceptions. Given that Stuart is a natural left shot, moving back to his strong side should prove to be less of a challenge than learning the ropes on the right side was. The main issues presented to a defenseman playing his off-side, and some of the reasons why it's a bigger deal even at the professional level than, say, a forward playing his off-wing, are the increased difficulty in keeping the puck in at the blueline, particularly when accepting a pass along the boards, and maintaining mobility and stick position when attempting to ensure gap control while defending against the rush. If anything, returning to his strong side might result in a modest improvement by Stuart in these aspects of his game.
Additionally, I asked J.J. from Winging It In Motown about Stuart's responsibilities within Detroit's system and his response was a ringing endorsement that Stuart is perfectly capable of playing either side:
When Detroit had a choice (any time other than a fast break the other way), it didn't matter which side the D-Men were on, it was always Stuart's job to chase dump-ins and go behind the net after the puck while the more-skilled guy would stand up the boards and at net-front looking for the outlet to move the puck the other way. His PK role was similar. Despite him being the "big D-Man", he would be used to pinch guys off on the boards while guys who are better at intercepting passes would worry about the lanes.
Given that the puck-retrieval defenseman following a dump-in in the Sharks' system is generally whichever blueliner is manning the side of the rink the puck is dumped in the direction of, we might have expected an adjustment period for Stuart when resuming play on the left side. Instead, it appears he's had plenty of experience recovering dumped-in pucks regardless of location with the Red Wings. It's also both reassuring and unsurprising that there was a great deal of switching back and forth in terms of the Wings defense's own-zone roles, meaning Stuart's already at least somewhat acclimated to the slightly different tasks he'll be faced with playing the other side.
Overall, while there are certainly other aspects to switching sides I've overlooked here (such as familiarity with specific opposing wingers), I think in this specific case there's enough evidence that Stuart's handedness, pre-Detroit experience playing the left side and the fluidity of his responsibilities within the Wings' system should make for a fairly easy transition. If he does struggle at first, the Sharks can afford to shelter Stuart, particularly if he does end up playing alongside Burns who started upwards of 56% of his non-neutral 5v5 shifts in the offensive zone last year.