Standing at the 484-yard, par-4 second hole at Norwood Hills Country Club on Monday, Blues center Paul Stastny launched his tee shot and leaned back.
“That ball still ain’t down,” shrieked Barry Berger, 67, of St. Louis, who was in Stastny’s group at the annual 14 Fund Golf Tournament.
Approximately 285 yards later, Stastny’s Titleist Pro V1 finally found the ground.
“I’m not going to hit a better one,” he said modestly.
Stastny looked much more at ease Monday, following a pressurizing period in his life last year in which he signed a four-year, $28 million free-agent contract with his hometown team, got married, sustained a shoulder injury in his fourth game and struggled to find his role with his new club.
“Yeah, way more (at ease),” Stastny said. “It was a whirlwind of emotions. I don’t regret anything, but it was a lot of change in a short period of time. I think you can prepare yourself as much as you can for something, but once you get in that position, you never know what’s going to happen.”
As the Blues open training camp Thursday, Stastny says that he’s better equipped to handle whatever comes his way this season, having more familiarity with the organization, growing trust with Blues coach Ken Hitchcock and possessing an open mind.
“Early on there were times where, sometimes you second-guess yourself,” Stastny said. “That’s what happens when you go through ups and downs. You have that injury, so you’re just upset a little bit. Sometimes you’re too negative over certain things.
“When I’m at my best, I’m loose, I’m smiling. That’s who I am and I don’t want to change that. Not everything is going to go smoothly, but I’ve got to learn to deal with it better and I’m more prepared for that.”
Stastny posted four points in his first three games, but a shoulder injury suffered Oct. 18 knocked him out for three weeks.
In a span of nearly nine full games, Jori Lehtera would emerge as a presence playing alongside Vladimir Tarasenko. They combined for 19 points before Stastny returned Nov. 6.
It was an unforeseen development that would relegate Stastny to third-line duty and less ice time for the next several months.
“He had a different role mostly because of what Lehtera did when he was out,” Hitchcock said. “Our team had success playing that way and so we stayed with it.”
Stastny’s situation was compounded by the fact, he believes now, that he came back too soon from the shoulder injury. He admits the decision may have stemmed from the hype surrounding his signing.
“First year on a new team, new contract, you feel like you’re useless when you’re not playing,” Stastny said. “As you get older, you realize maybe you should have taken a couple extra days and not worried about the outside pressure.”
There were also internal issues, in Stastny’s mind. After racking up 458 points in 538 games with Colorado, he felt like he needed to re-prove himself to Hitchcock.
“It’s not surprising,” Stastny said. “Those other guys had been here for a while and they have the trust of the coach, which is understandable because they are good players and they have been playing in that system for so many years. But that was new for me.”
Stastny’s ice time increased toward the middle of the season, finishing at 17 minutes, 37 seconds a game.
“If he didn’t have our trust, we wouldn’t have put him out there to kill penalties,” Hitchcock said. “If he didn’t have trust, we wouldn’t have put him out there to play with younger players to help them grow. If he didn’t have our trust, we wouldn’t have played him as much as we did. We fully trusted him.”
If Stastny didn’t feel he had the coach’s confidence before, he should now. He may open his second season centering Alexander Steen and Tarasenko on the Blues’ top line. The plan is for Stastny to see many more offensive-zone starts this season and perhaps have more creative freedom.
“I’m not going to tell that line how to play with the puck,” Hitchcock said. “They know more about offense than I’ll ever know. But when it’s time to play defense or it’s time to check, then they need to look like everybody else on the ice. That’s the trade-off.”
There is even talk about Stastny receiving one of the two alternate captain jobs vacated by T.J. Oshie and Barret Jackman. Hitchcock wouldn’t disclose his plans Tuesday, but said, “If you expect more, you’ve got to give more. To me, involvement and inclusion leads to a higher level of investment.”
A year after the Blues made a huge investment in Stastny, who finished with 16 goals and 46 points in 74 games, the sides appear ready to capitalize.
“I feel good about myself now,” he said. “Everyone says, ‘I had a good summer,’ but I think physically, mentally I’m more refreshed and ready to expect the unexpected.”
Moments after Stastny’s big drive at Norwood Hills, he sank a 15-foot putt for birdie. As the group left the hole, one member blew the “birdie horn,” which sounded a lot like the goal horn at Scottrade Center.
“I was thinking about this the other day,” said Chris Butler, a Blues teammate and native St. Louisan. “I’ve either played with or against Paul for the last 10, 12 years and you can tell that he’s much calmer coming into this situation this year. I think he’s going to have a heck of a year.”