NHL teams treasure power forwards. There is not much skating room in the North American game.
Bulldozing wingers offering skill and toughness command premium pay. So Chris Stewart will have every incentive to play large for the Blues during the next two seasons.
His two-year, $8.3 contract could be just a stepping stone toward more lucrative deals. Stewart is building worthy credentials. He delivered two 28-goal seasons earlier in his career and he scored at a similar pace (18 goals in 48 games) last season.
Stewart, 25, took a step back two seasons ago, scoring just 15 times in 79 mostly listless games. He redoubled his commitment to conditioning last summer and played a more vigorous game as a result.
He has size (6-foot-2 and 230 pounds) to fight through traffic. He has above average puck skills for a big man and he can fight well.
Stewart could become an unrestricted free agent in 2015 – and UFA power forwards have fared ridiculously well in the marketplace.
Consider some of this summer’s signings:
- Nathan Horton got $37.1 million over seven years from the Blue Jackets. John Davidson and Co. went “all in” on Horton despite his shoulder injury, which could sideline him well into this season as he recovers from surgery. Horton, 28, also carries a concussion history to Columbus. Playing with elite offensive teammates, he produced just 22 points in 43 games last season. Playing with lesser linemates, Horton could become a real salary cap killer for the Blue Jackets. But he once scored 31 goals in a season (for Florida) and played very well during his two postseason runs with the Bruins. So he is getting paid.
- David Clarkson got $36.75 million over seven years from the Maple Leafs – and turned down bigger offers elsewhere. Clarkson, 29, had one 30-goal season in New Jersey: His other season goal totals: 9, 17, 11, 12 and then 15 last season in 48 games. But he is a legitimate tough guy who causes havoc around the net and in the corners. He is the sort of combative player former GM Brian Burke always wanted to bring to Toronto but never did.
- Ryane Clowe got $24.25 million over five years from the Devils after scoring three goals in 40 games last season for the Sharks and Rangers. Clowe, 30, reached the 20-goal plateau just twice in his career. For further perspective, consider that former Blues coach Andy Murray once challenged Brad “The Body” Winchester to become the next Ryane Clowe. That was not like challenging Winchester to become the next Cam Neely. That was an attainable goal.
Stewart is tougher than Horton and more skilled than either Clarkson or Clowe. These are fair comparisons for him.
His buddy Wayne Simmonds could be another source of inspiration. Simmonds, a 28-goal scorer in 2011-12, got a six-year extension for $23.85 million from the Flyers. Rather than gamble on the potential for a bigger salary, Simmonds opted for long-term security.
If Stewart plays with urgency the next two seasons – as he did for much of last season for coach Ken Hitchcock – he will move in line for his own eight-digit deal.
Of course, that is easier said than done in the NHL. Playing a tough game shift after shift, night after night, week after week, month after month is difficult.
Stewart’s older brother Anthony has already bounced from the Panthers to the Thrashers, Hurricanes and Kings during his fledgling career. Anthony had a 14-goal season in 2010-11 but failed to build on that breakout. After the lockout ended last season, he toiled in the American Hockey League.
So Chris is acutely aware of the downside of NHL business. Big guys have to play big to get paid.
The challenge for Chris Stewart is clear. So is the potential reward. Playing a hard, straight-line game for the next two seasons will lead him directly to the big pay window.
AROUND THE RINKS: Last season's lockout hasn't stopped teams from giving top players gigantic contracts. Plenty of NHL players make Powerball money. But the salary cap reduction caused the free agent marketplace to dry up on some pretty decent supplemental scorers this summer. Former Leafs center Mikhail Grabovski remains unsigned, which is a bit of a surprise. Some players will need to take one-year deals, then hope for better when the salary cap jumps back over $70 million . . . Hockey Guy remembers when Tim Leiweke was a hot shot marketing guy for the Kansas City Comets indoor soccer team. That team did a zillion clinics and won the youth market. The players oiled up and won the female 18 to 35 demographic as well. Leiweke went on to much bigger and better things, helping build a monstrous LA sports empire. Now he is running the storied Maple Leafs and taking heat in Toronto for stepping on the franchise's great tradition . . . This has been an interesting offseason, with new Stars GM Jim Nill raiding the Red Wings hockey staff, Ron Hextall moving from the Kings to the Flyers as GM-in-waiting and Rob Blake replacing him in LA's front office . . . The NHL needs the big stage of the Olympics to promote itself. The Olympics need NHL to max out its star power. So the new international hockey deal is a win-win for both sides.