|Chris Stewart in his life away from the rink. |
Late last week, the Blues
came to terms with forward Chris Stewart
on a one-year deal worth $3 million, a slight pay cut from his salary of $3.25 million last season. And with the way he played last year, the only real shock could be how modest the pay cut actually was.
It's funny to look back now at the trade which brought Stewart to the Blues; anyone in the reading audience who had Kevin Shattenkirk as the big piece of that deal, please raise your hands. Now, everyone else, look at those people with their hands up. Never, ever trust those people, because they are liars.
At the time, Stewart was the major player, the massively talented offensive underachiever counterpart of Erik Johnson's massively talented defensive underachiever; Shattenkirk was the add-on to help balance the scales between the Avalanche and Blues. Although Stewart made a splash initially upon joining the club, one full and one half season later and Stewart is still the enigma (as is Johnson in Colorado, actually), while Shattenkirk has developed into one of the more intriguing -- and potent -- offensive-minded defensemen in the NHL.
Enigma. Yes, that's a good word for Stewart. Enigmatic. Big and strong and quick and skilled, but only 30 points in 79 games. What else would you call him?
Still, as enigmatic (read: frustratingly inconsistent and prone to long bouts of disappearitits), as Stewart has been in St. Louis, I'm glad to see he'll be with the club for another season. After all, this is a player who is still just 24 years old, with the size and strength to be a force in the league.
Of course, saying he's still only 24 years old doesn't mean this isn't a big season for Stewart coming up; I might stop short of saying make or break, but not much short. The big body and the flashes of brilliance will only get a player roster spots for so long. It's time for Stewart to show he can be the player his physical abilities have hinted at on a more regular basis.
I have to say, I think this deal has a real chance to succeed for all involved. The Blues did something very similar last offseason with T.J. Oshie, and the thought process is likely the same here. Coming into last season, Oshie had just completed a truncated and often-frustrating season in 2010-11 that made him the focus of much ire from the fanbase. The Blues were seen as a soft, mentally weak club, and Oshie was very much the poster boy for that. All the skill and talent in the world, the narrative went, and the kid is more interested in frosting his tips and, um, getting his tip frosted (super proud of that euphemism, by the way), than being the best he can be.
The Blues gave Oshie a one-year deal with an implied chance to make good included, and the kid responded. Oshie took a huge step forward last season, breaking out to the tune of 54 points in 80 games (in a very tight offensive system, no less), and a positive 15 in the +/-. He channeled both the brilliant creativity and remarkable physicality that had been the twin hallmarks of his game, tempering both with discipline. There were nights when he resembled nothing so much as the most nimble wrecking ball you've ever seen in your life. Beautiful hockey. Make-good deal made good.
Now, Doug Armstrong and Ken Hitchcock have to be hoping this latest deal works out as well as Oshie's did. At times, Stewart has shown a remarkable scoring touch. He doesn't have quite the improvisational ability of Oshie, or David Backes' nose for the crease (another really filthy euphemism brought to you by Aaron Schafer) and toughness, but he possesses a bit of both. Where Backes is pure power forward all the way, creating space with his size and strength, and Oshie is all jazz solos and rope-a-dope footwork, Stewart has some of each. He has better feet than Backes and close to 40 pounds on Oshie; the problem is we only see those good qualities in little bursts, surrounded by long periods of him playing small and slow and just, well, disappearing.
Again, though, the fact remains Stewart is only 24. Coming back to T.J. Oshie, he's right about a year older than Stewart; his big breakout came at age 25. Backes' breakout season came at 24; Andy McDonald didn't bust out until he was 28. Random data points all, and not necessarily proof of anything, but my point is this: at 24 Stewart is still young enough one could easily see a breakout season in the near future.
Chris Stewart underachieved in a big way last season, and the Blues' offense projects to be a more potent unit this upcoming year. He'll have a chance to be a part of that, but he's going to have to make some strides if he wants to. Hopefully, the same kind of motivation (and a little help from simple time), that pushed T.J. Oshie to make good on his make-good deal will take hold with Stewart. I'm not making any guarantees, but I think there's a very good chance he's worth every penny of this contract and more.
Then again, maybe not. Maybe we'll be sitting here next year at this same time, still describing Chris Stewart as, "Enigmatic forward Chris Stewart," and trying to figure out how we all missed out on the awesomeness of Kevin Shattenkirk way back when. If that's the case, though, we definitely won't be wondering about his status with the team for another season.
In terms of wearing the 'Note, at least, this is probably make or break time for Chris Stewart. He'll get other chances even if things don't turn around this season. Those chances, however, will likely come elsewhere.