Dean Stewart was crushed when his season ended initially, but after time to reflect, he says it's hard not to think of it as a success.
The Manitoba Moose defenceman helped his team finish the season with a top-twelve record in the American Hockey League and make the playoffs. The Portager says this was his first postseason experience at this level.
"It went all the way to Game 5 (in a best-of-five series), and we ended up losing 2-1. It was a tight series," Stewart explains. "It was a lot of fun for me, not having played in a playoff series in quite a while. It was probably a good learning experience for me and a good chunk of us there on the Moose. Hopefully, we can make the playoffs again next year and do a little better."
Manitoba fell to the Milwaukee Admirals in the Central Division semi-finals. The Moose led the series 2-1 after winning both Game 2 and Game 3 in overtime but Milwaukee ultimately came back.
The Admirals are still alive and are currently down 2-1 in a best-of-seven series with the Coachella Valley Firebirds in the Western Conference Finals.
"It was an adjustment just like going from college to the ECHL or the ECHL to the AHL. Things are just going to happen a little bit quicker. Not as many mistakes are going to get made. It's just a higher level of hockey," says Stewart. "There were quite a few guys on our team where that was their first playoff series in the American Hockey League. Milwaukee had more of a veteran group over there. We saw that in the first game of the series where we lost 6-2. It was good for myself and a lot of guys on the team to get acclimated to the playoffs at this level."
Dean Stewart with a remarkable play to break up a 3-on-1. pic.twitter.com/PBzQ2YrScE— Connor Hrabchak (@ConnorHrabchak1) March 5, 2023
This was the Portager's first full season in the AHL after playing just 20 games with the Moose last year. In 61 regular season games during the 2022-23 campaign, Stewart scored one goal and dished out 17 assists.
"It was a good year, so I'll have some good memories. Some of the friendships I made this year are ultimately what I'll remember the most. I was also pretty fortunate with my D partners I got to play with this year. Between Ashton Sautner and Ville Heinola -- those would be two of the best D partners I've ever had. So, looking back, I'll probably have that to remember, as well."
Now that the offseason is here, Stewart plans to get bigger, faster, and stronger going into next year, however, he is currently taking some time away from the game.
"After going through that playoff series, I think pretty much everyone's body is a little banged up. So, you need to take some time for that stuff to fix itself. I think more than anything, you need to get away from the rink and away from the gym for peace of mind," Stewart continues. "I like the way I've done it the last couple of years. I take three weeks completely off and do what I want to do for those three weeks. When it's time to get back in the gym, I'm always excited."
Stewart says he went to a Minnesota Twins game this week and is taking a trip to California in the next few days. When he returns from the vacation, he says he'll move to Brandon for the summer and begin working toward his number one goal for the 2023-24 season.
"I'd like to play in the NHL next year," says Stewart. "Obviously, I'm not going to be making any teams out of training camp in the fall. With a good start to the season next year, and if I can be a consistent defenceman throughout the course of the year, I hope to get a chance to play a game or two in the NHL."