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Paul Stastny was one of the biggest free agents on the market last summer and signed a four-year, $28 million contract with the St. Louis Blues. He had spent eight seasons in the NHL as a skilled, two-way centerman, averaging 0.85 points per game.
But in early December, he was coming off an injury, and he was struggling, and he was still trying to prove himself to coach Ken Hitchcock.
“You’ve kind of got to earn your trust and your respect all over again,” Stastny said. “Part of me felt like I was a rookie again and I’d never played 500-plus games in this league.”
As the season has gone on, Stastny has become more comfortable in Hitchcock’s system. He’s playing in all situations. He’s winning faceoffs. He’s producing more – in time for the stretch run and the playoffs.
Bottom line: He helps give the Blues three balanced lines, and they have one of the best records in the league.
Still, he’s slotted as the Blues’ No. 3 centerman, averaging 0.66 points per game. It has been hard to find his niche and his game for several reasons.
After signing Stastny, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said he envisioned him as the No. 1 centerman between Alex Steen and David Backes, who would move to the right wing. Armstrong had also signed Jori Lehtera, a 2008 third-round pick who had been playing in the Kontinental Hockey League. Lehtera would center Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, a former KHL linemate. Patrik Berglund would center Vladimir Sobotka and T.J. Oshie.
Well, not everything went according to plan. Sobotka went to the KHL. Stastny suffered a shoulder injury. Backes moved back to center. Oshie suffered a concussion. The Schwartz-Lehtera-Tarasenko lined clicked and carried the team. After missing eight games, Stastny produced three points in 13 games, and Hitchcock said publicly the Blues needed more from him.
First problem: Stastny spent 10 seasons in Colorado – two at the University of Denver, then eight with the Avalanche. Though he grew up in St. Louis as the son of Peter Stastny, who finished his NHL career with the Blues, he still had to make an adjustment. He got married last summer, too.
“I think it’s years of one organization and one city and one comfort level and growing into a routine, and all of a sudden he’s got a new system, a new coach, a new route to the rink,” Backes said. “He’s married with his wife living with him in a new house. Family, friends that he grew up with, I don’t know all the distractions, but I can imagine being in your hometown, that’s abundant.”
Second problem: The Avs played an open, attacking style last season under coach Patrick Roy. Stastny produced 25 goals and 60 points and the Avs put up 112 points even though the team played a poor possession game. The Blues are about the opposite under Hitchcock.
“He comes from a system where creativity and making plays is kind of their No. 1 goal, and here the No. 1 goal is structure and defense,” Oshie said. “We don’t have a lot of leeway, except for one or two guys, to use our creativity. He’s a creative player. That’s why it’s so fun to play with him. That’s not something we get a lot of room to do.”
Third problem: The injury slowed Stastny’s adjustment. He was still trying to develop chemistry with his new teammates, and he was concentrating on the system instead of using his instincts, playing a little safe.
“Thinking,” Stastny said. “Thinking too much. I think especially coming off an injury, you’re watching sometimes. You’re playing with good players. You’re relying on them too much, and you don’t realize that they’re relying on you just as much. When I’m playing well, I’m trying to create turnovers. I’m trying to be usually not the first but the second man on the puck. I think sometimes you get in the habit of sitting back on your heels, and that’s when you get in trouble.”
Fourth problem: Last season, Stastny almost always played with Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon at even strength. Landeskog was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year in 2011-12. MacKinnon was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft and won the Calder last season. This season, he has played mostly with Berglund and Dmitrij Jaskin. The Blues have wanted to keep Schwartz, Lehtera and Tarasenko together, and they have often reunited Steen, Backes and Oshie.
Stastny said that was understandable.
“When things don’t go well, you always go back to old faithful,” Stastny said. “But I’m a big believer that over the course of the year the cream rises to the top.”
Stastny’s game has at least started to rise in the second half. He said he has tried to stop thinking and watching, to be on his toes more often. A good sign: Hitchcock, who values checking so much, has praised Stastny for his checking – how he has skated at a higher pace, played through the body and hands, created turnovers and generated offense because of it.
Though Stastny has 14 goals and 43 points in 65 games overall, he has 11 and 35 in his past 48. At 0.72 points per game over that stretch, he’s closer to his career average. He’s winning 58.3 percent of his faceoffs overall, third-best in the NHL. He’s earning more of Hitchcock’s trust.
“I think the last 20, 30 games I’ve really felt comfortable,” Stastny said. “I’ve been myself. … Game by game, whether it’s starting to play more penalty kill, starting to play more defensive-zone draws, starting to play more power play, I’m kind of proving what I have here.”
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