After a morning skate at Pepsi Center on Feb. 20 in Colorado, the Blues returned to their hotel and braced for a game that night with the Avalanche. As they walked through the lobby to the elevators, coach Ken Hitchcock intercepted Chris Stewart.
He steered his big power forward to some chairs in the foyer and the two talked for 15 minutes.
Stewart has been a magnet for attention since he arrived in St. Louis, part of a dynamic trade that sent No. 1 overall draft pick Erik Johnson to Colorado. Stewart had 15 goals in 26 games after arriving in February 2011. It was enough to make him a cover story for the 2011-12 season previews.
The media projected Stewart as the Blues’ next 40-goal scorer. It didn’t happen. In the 2011-12 review, he had 15 goals and 30 points in 79 games. His conditioning – or lack of — came under scrutiny. “Told you so” gossip rippled from Colorado, filled with insinuations and innuendo. The numbers seemed to explain why Stewart was included in the deal with Kevin Shattenkirk.
Stewart took it to heart and adopted an aggressive fitness program. When the lockout ended and he arrived for work in January, he looked more like Jimmy Stewart. He was 20 pounds lighter and considerably leaner. Stewball was a race horse.
He scored two goals on opening night, and the Blues got off to a 6-1 start. Again, lights blared, sound bites swirled and anticipation swelled. But on Feb. 20, a season 16 games old was fragmenting. In terms of points, Stewart had six goals and six assists, nothing to apologize for. But his game still resembled last season’s model, transparent and undefined.
In that Denver hotel lobby, the conversation wasn’t about goals or points. The one-on-one meeting was a call to arms, a challenge to compete. And the message hit home loud and clear.
“I told him in Colorado, ‘If you compete hard, all the points will take care of themselves, but if you don’t compete, there will be too many peaks and valleys in your game,’” Hitchcock recalled. “He’s embracing a highly competitive game and now he’s starting to see production as a result of that.
“A lot of scoring players look for space rather than fight for space. He’s fighting for space now. It’s making him an impact player in the game and it’s giving him offensive production, which makes him feel good.”
Let’s be honest, it’s making a lot of people feel good, people who wear Blue and people who bleed it.
“The guy’s on fire,” said David Backes, who played with Stewart on a line that accumulated eight points in a Thursday win over Phoenix. “It’s great to see. We need different guys stepping up all the time and he’s been on it.”
Stewart did not score on that Feb. 20th night; he was a minus-1. But beginning with a goal against Columbus three nights later, he has eight goals and eight assists over his last 11 games. That includes seven goals and 14 points over the last six, five goals and seven points over the last three.
That includes a viral-spreading goal Saturday night, a game-winner in overtime, a follow-up to consecutive two-goal nights last week. He leads the Blues with 14 goals and 28 points.
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Stewart isn’t just impacting, he’s destroying. And the 25-year old Toronto native knows why. He’s heard it explained in hotel lobbies.
“Control the things that I can bring to the game,” Stewart explained, “which is winning one-on-one battles, playing in the hard areas, getting pucks in off the wall and finishing my checks. It’s good to know that (Hitchcock) believes when I’m doing that, it’s really going to bring my game to the next level.”
It’s a strange concept for gifted athletes. This is a results-oriented business. The sport might have a team structure, but the compensation is individually-specific. Values are measured in statistics.
To be sure, Stewart is gifted, as was richly demonstrated in his overtime gem on Saturday. He is a Maserati built on a Mack truck platform, a force from the time he first laced up skates. For Stewart, points always have been most pertinent, a perspective hammered home by parents, coaches and playmates. The ends begin to justify the means.
Stewart’s initial scoring splash in St. Louis simply magnified the profile, and he tried to live up to the “power forward” nameplate.
“That’s a lot of pressure to live up to,” Stewart acknowledged. “I think I took all of that the wrong way last year. I really had the summer to look back on it and reflect. I decided that you can’t read into it, you can’t worry about the points.
“You just have to worry about competing for your teammates and really bearing down. When you do those little things, that’s when you get that room in the offensive zone to make that move. I think that’s one of the best things that has hit home in my career for me.”
Stewart has realized the means can justify the ends. He has focused on the process and the production has come complimentary.
“What we’re trying to do with Stewie is change his value system, and he’s really starting to embrace that now,” Hitchcock said. “You can still be a good player in the game and not get points. You can still have an impact, even though you don’t score.
“It’s about not playing the game looking to score, but playing the game looking to compete and know that when you have a high skill level, like Stewie does, there’s going to be times when you score. But don’t drop your competitive base. Don’t base everything on points.”
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