Karl Stewart was signed by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2001 after playing for them in the Traverse City Tournament. He returned to juniors for two more years, making his pro debut in 2003-04.
Stewart is a speedy two-way winger, who is terrific around the net. He’s a constant catalyst for the offense, but very strong defensively as well. In 2002-03, his last season in junior, he was ranked 13th in the OHL with a career-high 85 points (35 goals, 50 assists) playing for the Plymouth Whalers.
The 20-year-old rookie was the last cut from the Thrashers in 2003 training camp. He has played most of the season with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL, except for four games played with the Thrashers in November, in which he had one assist.
Coach John Anderson of the Wolves is impressed by Stewart, but thinks he has a little bit of work to do.
“[He’s] one year away, he’s just got to get rid of a few of his bad habits from junior. He’s got to learn how to score a little more because he creates so much. Once he gets started, boy, he could score 20-25 goals in the National Hockey League.”
Hockey’s Future spoke to Stewart following the Wolves 5-3 loss to the Hamilton Bulldogs on Saturday.
HF: How do you think your season is going so far overall?
KS: I think I’ve adjusted well to the professional hockey level, coming straight from junior. I jumped straight from junior to the National Hockey League. I played in six exhibition [and four regular season] games and I really think that helped my development.
HF: What have you had to change about your game, if anything, from junior?
KS: Not really change anything, but it’s a lot faster so you have to be a lot more sharp. I have the speed to play in the NHL, I just have to be a lot smarter and be at the right place at the right time.
HF: Have there been any surprises for you?
KS: We play 80 games up here and I played 68 games in junior. I really didn’t think that would be a factor, but I’m starting to feel it a bit right now. Good conditioning will help me get through the rest of the games and into the playoffs.
HF: When you say you’re feeling it, what exactly do you mean?
KS: Emotionally drained, physically drained. You just finished playing on a Sunday and you’re back at it on a Wednesday, and it’s almost like it never ends. But that’s just part of the adjustment.
HF: Would you say your role is different on this team than it was in junior?
KS: I think my role is the same. Last year I was a little bit more of a scorer on my Plymouth team. This year I’m more of a sandpaper guy, get in there, be first to the puck and finish my checks. I don’t think my role is going to change whether I’m playing at the NHL, AHL or OHL level.
HF: Coach Anderson mentioned that you have some bad habits from junior, what do you think those are?
KS: I think on the penalty kill you do a lot of circling in junior and in professional hockey you need to get away from that, it’s mostly stops and starts. I don’t know [what else], maybe I should go ask him (laughs).
HF: You’re very plus, is that something you take a lot of pride in?
KS: Yeah, if the coach is worried about you getting scored on then he won’t put you out on the ice. If I go out there and am strong defensively, and I’m strong in the offensive zone, it’s a bonus for me.
HF: Do you feel like you should be scoring more than you are?
KS: You know, I’m getting a lot of chances if you watch the games. I do feel like I should be scoring more, just bearing down. It’s a matter of time before they start going in.
HF: Coach Anderson mentioned this as an area for improvement.
KS: It would be nice to score more. It’s part of the transition. I’ve got to get used to it. I’m not going to come in and score 100 goals right away. It would be nice to score on every chance but I feel I’m getting better and I’m picking my head up a little more and the goals will come.
HF: Who have your linemates been most of the year?
KS: Mostly Brendan Yarema and Derek Mackenzie. Right now I’m with Tommi Santala and Brendan Yarema.
HF: Is there anyone you feel you have better chemistry with or doesn’t it matter?
KS: It doesn’t matter. You put me out there, I’m going to do the same thing whether I’m playing with Malts or Yarema.
HF: You got a couple games in Atlanta early this season — usually guys get a few games in later in the year.
KS: I was playing well. I thought that was a good measuring stick to see what I need to work on and what I need to do to stick at the next level.
HF: You weren’t drafted, but were signed to a contract so early. Obviously things worked out for you though.
KS: Well, you know what, I’d like to be in the NHL and I won’t be satisfied until then. I’ve had some great accomplishments in my career. I wasn’t drafted, I didn’t frown upon that. I mean just because you’re drafted doesn’t mean you’re going to sign. I skipped that step.
HF: I mean that your relationship with the organization all worked out in the end.
KS: Yeah, I wasn’t crossing my fingers to get drafted, I knew that if I wasn’t drafted Dan Marr was going to call me and invite me to the summer camp. Sure enough, I didn’t get drafted and Dan Marr was on the phone with me five minutes after the draft ended inviting me to the camp.
HF: Did anyone else invite you to a camp that year?
KS: Nope, just Atlanta.
HF: What else do you feel you need to improve on?
KS: I’ve got to slow myself down a little bit. I find myself going too fast at the wrong times. I’ve got to control my speed, harness it and use it in the right situations so I’m not just running around out there wasting energy.
HF: Is that something a coach has told you or did you figure that out on your own?
KS: Every coach has kind of told me that. And I am getting better at it. It’s just a matter of me picking my head up and looking to see what’s around me and seeing how much time I have.
HF: Is there anything Bob Hartley told you at camp that has helped you?
KS: You know, Bob’s a great teacher of the game. He tells me a lot of things and if he tells you something, you’ve got to listen. It’s probably what you’ve got to work on. He’s told me a few things and I’m working on them.
HF: Are they a secret?
KS: No, no, nothing in particular. Just the all-around game, you just listen to what he has to say.
HF: Do you keep up with your old Plymouth team?
KS: I do. On the All-Star break I went back to Plymouth and I caught a game. It’s a little different than when I was there. They’re a little bit tougher team. But I do follow my old team and check up on the old guys I used to play against. I’ll always follow my junior team.