Former Maverick defenseman Dean Stewart is 41 games into his professional career as he is currently playing with the ECHL’s Wichita Thunder. A 2016 seventh-round pick (188th overall) of the Arizona Coyotes, Stewart became a free agent and signed a free-agent deal with the Thunder on Jan. 8.
The Thunder, who are the ECHL affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers, are 32-15-4-1 and sit in second place in the ECHL’s Western Conference standings. Due to the delayed start to the season, the ECHL regular season runs through the first week of June.
Stewart leads Wichita defenseman in scoring this season with 24 points. The Manitoba native has scored four goals, one of those being a game-winner, and has added 20 assists. He’s also recorded a +11 plus/minus rating.
In 130 career games in Omaha, Stewart scored seven goals and finished his college career with 45 total points. He was a regular on the blueline over his last two seasons with the Mavericks and saw time on both special teams units. As a junior, Stewart was fifth on the team in scoring with 21 points (5g, 16a).
Last season Stewart was the recipient of the team’s Outstanding Defenseman Award and team MVP. He was also one of the team’s biggest leaders on and off the ice as Stewart wore the ‘C’ and was named the team’s Biggest Heart Award winner as a senior.
The Gateway recently caught up with Stewart for a Q&A to reflect on his time in Omaha and talk about playing in Wichita so far this season.
Q: What’s your time in Wichita been like so far?
A: We’ve got a really good team and we’ve been winning a lot of games, so I can’t complain. One of my good buddies (Ryan White) from back home just came and joined the team too and he’s spent a lot of time in the NHL, so learning from guys like him and the coaching staff has been really good. I’ve just been trying to be a sponge and soak up as much as I can from some of these older guys, and just getting my feet wet as a first-year pro, so it’s been good.
The ECHL is pretty much playing a full schedule too so I’ve been getting to play a lot of games and I think that’s given me a chance to work on my game quite a bit. It’s been a weird year, but no complaints and I’m definitely enjoying my time here.
Q: You don’t sign with Arizona and become a free agent… What was last fall like for you and how was your transition to the pro game?
A: It was crazy. I didn’t sign with Arizona, so I became a free agent on August 15 and then it became seeing where would be a fit. I was hoping to sign an entry-level deal with another organization and I had a couple AHL offers, but my agent decided just to wait and try to get an entry-level deal somewhere. But by the time we found out that wasn’t going to happen, most of the AHL teams had already signed everybody for this year. Then next thing you know it was almost Christmas time, so I needed somewhere to play.
We looked into going to Europe, but for me it was just about playing games and playing games in front of NHL scouts. My agent figured that staying over here would be the best chance for me to get a good contract for next year, so I decided to sign with Wichita and ever since I’ve gotten here it’s been great. And I’m not the only guy that this happened to. I’m sure there are a few other guys that didn’t plan on playing in the ECHL this year, but just kind of the way the cookie crumbles, and I can’t complain. I’ve learned a lot from some of the other guys and coaches and we’re playing a ton of games, so if you look at it in that sense, it almost might be a blessing in disguise. Crazy year to say the least, but everything has worked out.
Q: Did you get a chance to follow the Mavs much this season?
A: Yeah I did actually. I watched every game in the Pod and had a few buddies on different teams too, so I got to watch them as well. Even after that though I followed along pretty closely this season. Some of my best friends are in Omaha, so I’ll keep following the team and following Gabs and the staff for quite a few years to come.
Q: What were your thoughts on the Pod?
A: That just seemed so cool. When it was going on I wasn’t playing anywhere and was pretty much just sitting at home, and I just remember wishing I could’ve been there. That’s the stuff that makes hockey great and it’s almost just like being on the road for a month and having no worries except going to the rink and spending time with the boys. I wish I could’ve played in something like that and I know from talking to a few of the guys that they enjoyed it and they did well there.
Q: What’s it been like playing with Evan Weninger again?
A: Man, what a guy. He’s just been unbelievable to me. I actually didn’t know he was with the team, but I remember as soon as I signed I got a facetime from him and talked for a while, but he’s been unreal to me. Coming down here I didn’t know a single guy other than him, so he’s made the transition a lot easier just having someone I knew and was comfortable with.
That’s a little bit about Evan as a guy, but on the ice, he’s had a heck of a season too. He’s out now with an injury, but I think he’ll be back soon and he was making his case for ECHL Goalie of the Year. He’s been a huge part of our success this season and having him back there has been great.
Q: What’s the thing you miss the most about Omaha?
A: I said it last year and it’s cliche, but it really is the people. Not only just the players, but the training staff, Mike Lewis, Smitty (Jason Smits) and the coaching staff were all unbelievable to me. I still talk to a lot of the guys fairly often, and even some of the alumni. This summer during COVID I really got to know some of the alumni pretty well and I’ll stay in touch with these guys for the rest of my life. I plan on making it a point every summer to come back and train and skate with the boys and some of the alumni.
Stewart is one of several former Mavs who have been busy recently.
One of four other seniors that graduated alongside Stewart last season, Jones has played in 20 games during his first professional season with the AHL’s Rochester Americans. Jones has scored one goal and added six assists, including two on April 21.
Another member of last year’s senior class, Keck signed a deal with the Coventry Blaze on March 19. He’s gotten off to a fast start as Keck has scored a league-leading 12 goals and has 17 points in just 10 games played.
Guentzel recently hit the 20-goal mark for the fourth time in his NHL career. The 26-year-old continues to produce for the Penguins as he’s scored 20 goals and added 29 assists through 47 games this season.
The older Megna brother was recently sent back down to the AHL’s Colorado Eagles. He had previously been on the taxi squad with the Colorado Avalanche and has skated in four NHL games this season. Megna has scored seven goals in eight games with the Eagles this season.
Story on former Omaha defenseman and current San Jose Barracuda captain Jaycob Megna: https://t.co/QL3rAHG8Ik
In 51 games with IF Björklöven this season, Vesel has found the back of the net 18 times and added 28 assists. His 46 points lead the team. A member of Omaha’s team that made it to the Frozen Four, Vesel is in his second season playing in Sweden.