Two days after the Blues’ Chris Stewart exchanged wedding vows with his new wife Holley in July, the right winger was scheduled to be attendance at his contract arbitration hearing in Toronto.
“I would have been there, but I might have been wearing my tuxedo with a couple of stains on the white dress shirt,” Stewart joked.
Thus for multiple reasons, his honeymoon most notably, the restricted free agent said that he was thankful to avoid arbitration at the last moment, signing a two-year, $8.3 million contract extension.
The Blues now want Stewart to trade in his tux and get his Blues’ jersey dirty on a regular basis. While he led the lineup with 18 goals and 36 points last season, there were too many peaks and valleys, and that’s why it took until the sides were on the doorstep of their hearing before they could reach an agreement.
In a nine-game stretch in the middle of the regular season, Stewart netted eight of his 18 goals and 15 of his 36 points. Then he contributed just three points in a 15-game span and had only one point in six playoff games against Los Angeles.
Stewart will make $4.15 million in each of the next two seasons, taking him into unrestricted free agency after the 2014-15 season, but with any more consistency he could have been a $5 million per-year player and perhaps earned a lengthier extension.
“I think they want to see me for a few more years so that I show I can bring it on a consistent basis and I agree with that,” Stewart said. “I think that I’ve done pretty well in this league but I obviously think there’s room for growth. When it came down to it, we lost in the playoffs, and I know that I didn’t play my best hockey.
“I want to be one of those guys who can be counted on every game. I know a lot of people look at it from the statistic standpoint and I definitely got points in bunches. Honestly, I think that’s the way it goes sometimes … you just don’t get those bounces. But I truly believe the things I’m going to bring to the table this year will help me create those bounces.”
To aid Stewart, the Blues are bringing something to the table. They signed free-agent center Derek Roy to a one-year, $4 million contract in July, and the plan is to play the two together.
Roy eclipsed 40 assists in four of his eight seasons in Buffalo before back-to-back trades took him to Dallas and Vancouver and eventually free agency.
“We feel like 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,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “That’s when (Roy) 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 has met and skated with Roy on a few occasions, said that their styles are “definitely” a match.
“He’s a skill-first center who can make plays and I think I’m definitely a guy who can go up and down the wing and create some space for him,” he said. “We’ve always had the big centermen down the middle, which is great. But I think in this game, you’re going to have to make plays, and I think to have that dynamic centerman up the middle is going to be a boost for us.”
A year ago, much of the focus was on Stewart’s physical condition. Following a disappointing 15-goal, 30-point season in 2011-12, he re-dedicated himself to his offseason training and came to camp after the lockout weighing 232 pounds.
Stewart said his workload in the gym “picked up a lot” this summer but his routine — which included pulling a 300-400-pound sled — was geared toward adding power as opposed to dropping weight. He currently is checking in at 235 pounds, with a plan to be 230 when players report for physicals Sept. 11.
“I didn’t really get on the scale that much this summer,” Stewart said. “I felt explosive and I felt fast on the ice. That’s more what I’m worried about. I think a lot of the people try to put how I’m playing, or the difference in me, is a number on the scale. I think I’m over that stage in my career and I’m not too worried about it from a weight standpoint.
“I think it’s overrated, to tell you the truth. When I got traded here from Colorado, I was probably around 245, and I finished with 16 goals in 25 games and no one had a word to say about it. So, I’m not really too worried about my weight. I have it under control and I feel comfortable anywhere from 230 to 235.”
Even though Stewart totaled 28 goals in both 2009-10 and 2010-11, led the Blues in scoring last season and remained property of the club this offfseason, there were some who wondered whether he would be back. But Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said the thought of moving Stewart never entered his mind.
“We had never contemplated giving up on him,” Armstrong said. “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.”
But now that he’s back, they don’t want Stewart to go missing.
“Stewie’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.”
In another words, get some dirt on his shirt.
“To round out my game, I can’t be a guy who just thinks about scoring,” Stewart said. “I have more physical attributes to impact the game. Whether it’s barking at a guy, or dropping the mitts, that’s something that I’ve always been able to do throughout my career and that’s something I’ve got to do more of. I don’t want to ease into games. I want to get out there and let the opposition know that I mean business from the first shift to the last.”