With a New Center, Stewart is Blues' X-Factor
ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Blues' search for a center to complement a consistent set of wings may have been one of the NHL's worst kept secrets entering the offseason.
The idea was that it could help increase scoring for an offensively-challenged team looking to take the next step in progression as well as give the team a bona fide No. 1 guy down the middle.
Signing veteran Derek Roy to a one-year, $4 million contract was done for two reasons: to re-establish the solid point production that Roy proved while playing for the Buffalo Sabres, and, more important, to develop chemistry with power forward Chris Stewart.
The 25-year-old Stewart, who recently signed a two-year, $8.3 million contract, has seen his share of ups and downs throughout his young career -- first with the Colorado Avalanche and now with the Blues.
The Blues acquired Stewart in 2011 along with defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk in a deal that sent former defenseman Erik Johnson, the first player taken in the 2006 NHL Draft, to Colorado. Stewart has shown the ability to take over games as well as go through prolonged point and goalless streaks. Though he's 6-foot-2 and 231 pounds, Stewart has the kind of soft, deft hands a player his size normally doesn't possess -- but he can play a power game with the best of them.
The Blues, who have been bounced from the postseason by the Los Angeles Kings in each of the past two seasons, are banking that Stewart will return to the form that saw him score seven of his team-leading 18 goals in a seven-game stretch last season. That's the kind of streaky play that Stewart, a Toronto native, has been prone to; he also scored three goals during the Blues' final 18 regular-season games.
"You can't put a number on it when it comes stat-wise," Stewart said. "I feel like if I can play the way I play, you're going to get your opportunities and those kinds of things will take care of themselves.
"As far as personal goals, I'm just going to fit them into team goals. Whatever I can do to help my team win every night -- that's going to be the attitude."
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who has had experience with both players at the international level, is already eager to see the Roy-Stewart combination when the team opens camp in a month. The veteran coach feels both can benefit from being on the ice together.
"We're comfortable with twosomes wanting to see threesomes," Hitchcock said, referring to his projected line combinations. "We really want to see Stewart play with Roy.
"With Derek Roy and Stewart, we feel like that Stewart's a guy that gets open in the scoring areas and we feel like Derek Roy's a guy that has patience to find people like that. That's his strength. That's when he was getting big numbers in Buffalo [playing with Thomas Vanek]. He was that type of guy that had patience and bought time and made plays that a lot of people can't make."
Stewart, who in his second and third seasons in the League scored 28 goals, dipped to 15 goals and 30 points in 79 games with the Blues in 2011-12. It was the kind of unproductive season that had Hitchcock moving Stewart anywhere from the top line to the fourth line in search of consistent production.
When Stewart seemed to find himself in a more productive role last season, his name was the subject of trade rumors. Blues general manager Doug Armstrong never actually contemplated giving up on Stewart after giving him a one-year contract prior to last season. Stewart went on to lead the Blues with 18 goals and 36 points last season before receiving a two-year deal last month.
But the Blues need Stewart, who recently got married, to produce in a consistent and continue to grow. It's OK to be creative, but play with a mean streak as well and do so by taking up real estate in front of the net by using Stewart's big frame.
"For us to be a successful team and for us to win in the playoffs, he has to be a big part of that," Armstrong said of Stewart. "We traded for a player that I think can be a huge part of a good team. I'm looking forward to him coming back in here and regaining the stats on our team and to get his ice time up to where he can produce in the 30-plus goal range.
"We had never contemplated giving up on him. We traded for him for a reason. He had back-to-back 28-goal seasons. That's an accomplishment in a League that's hard to score in. ... Power forwards are very difficult to find."
Stewart, who has 100 goals and 202 points in 319 career games, will get an opportunity to thrive with a patient puck-handler like Roy. The Blues have yet to determine who they will look at to complement the pair, but feel they have two-thirds of a line that has the makings to be a good one.
"Stewy's challenge is just sorting out why he's having success," Hitchcock said. "I think once you figure out why you're having success, you don't want to let go of the rope.
"I think he's figuring out the harder he competes, the more he scores. So rather than looking to score, he's looking to compete, and then the whole thing just takes care of itself. When you have skill players who operate like that, they're hard to play against."
With a bevy of talented teammates, Stewart believes he can be a piece to the puzzle.
"There's really no restrictions here," Stewart said. "You've got a lot of offensive power here. I think my job is not really to carry the puck; just kind of give it and go to the net. Just simplify things. The nights I simplify my game the most are the nights I have the most success.
"I think the sky's the limit for us."