Three Periods: Chris Stewart scores on rebound; Chris Kunitz superstar booster; Ducks' CBA gamble

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

Nicholas J. Cotsonika's weekly Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week's topics include Chris Stewart’s comeback season in St. Louis; Chris Kunitz’s long history of helping superstars; Ducks take first CBA plunge with big deals for Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf; the moment of clarity for Coyotes and Oliver Ekman-Larsson; and NHL trade deadline, Teemu Selanne’s future and Martin St-Louis isn't old.

FIRST PERIOD: Hard work paying off for Blues’ Stewart in bounce-back season

He hired a new trainer. He went through a new workout regimen. He spent the lockout playing in places like Crimmitschau, Germany, and Liberec, Czech Republic. And now Chris Stewart is back for the St. Louis Blues, in more ways than one.

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“I came back here on a mission,” Stewart said. “And so far, it’s been mission accomplished.”

Stewart leads the Blues with 14 goals and 28 points. He’s on a 39-goal, 78-point pace for a full 82-game schedule. He says he feels like his old self, but that’s even better than his old self. Those numbers would shatter his career highs of 28 goals and 64 points, set in 2009-10 with the Colorado Avalanche.

Before Tuesday night’s 3-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks – no goals, no points, minus-3 – Stewart had a run of five goals and seven points in three games, and seven goals and 12 points in seven games.

When was the last time he has played this well?

“Probably when I got traded to St. Louis,” Stewart said. “I had probably the eye of the tiger. I was a little pissed off when I got shipped off from Colorado there. I thought we had a good thing going. But they cut their ties with me, and I wanted to show the league and [Blues GM] Doug Armstrong he made a great decision.”

After his big year with the Avalanche, Stewart slipped in 2010-11. He had 13 goals and 30 points in 36 games before the Avs traded him. He finished the season with 15 goals and 23 points in 26 games for the Blues.

Then he slipped again last season. He put almost the same numbers for the Blues – 15 goals, 30 points – in 79 games. He wasn’t in the shape the Blues wanted.

“There were times last year when we couldn’t play him in the third period,” said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. “We played him as a top-nine forward, but we couldn’t play him in the third period just on conditioning alone.”

Not anymore.

“I wasn’t in the shape I am now,” Stewart said. “When you’re not playing the game you want, they’re going to find the flaws. You can take it one way or another. I took it as a learning experience. I wanted to come to camp as lean as possible.”

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Stewart felt ready in September. He had improved his stamina and explosiveness. Then he went to Europe to improve his game. He chose teams that offered roles that would enhance his game. Though he is labeled a power forward and is listed at 6-foot-2 and 232 pounds, he has skill with the puck.

“I think when I’ve got that confidence, I have the ability to make those moves,” he said. “My first couple years in the league, I was able to beat guys 1-on-1 and use my speed off the rush. I feel like I’ve really got that back in my game this year.”

Hitchcock has been pleased with Stewart’s conditioning. He wants him concentrating on competing more than producing, though, because if he plays the power game, the points will come.

“He spent last year looking for space, trying to find an easy place to go, and he’s not doing that anymore,” Hitchcock said. “He’s fighting for space. He’s a big body, knocks people around. He’s willing to go. Last year, he’d stand off to the side of the net. Now he stands in front of the net. He’s got great hands in close.”

This, of course, is a contract year. Stewart is set to become a restricted free agent. There are obvious questions about whether Stewart will slip again if he gets big money and how he fits into the Blues’ long-term plans. His name has come up in trade talk, at least in the media.

The mission isn’t over.

“I wouldn’t really say I’m doing it for anyone but myself,” Stewart said. “I’ve always known what I’m capable of doing. I’m my biggest believer. Like I said, I wanted to prove it to myself I could be a consistent player in this league.”

SECOND PERIOD: Chris Kunitz, the ultimate complementary piece

Of course there is a Sidney Crosby effect. But what about the Chris Kunitz effect?

Kunitz has reached a new level for the Pittsburgh Penguins, playing on Crosby’s left wing while Crosby has returned to his pre-concussion level. Kunitz entered Thursday night tied for second in the NHL in goals (18) and points (40). He was on pace to set career highs despite the shortened 48-game schedule.

Two reasons: Crosby is passing more than shooting, because playmaking comes more naturally to him than scoring and scoring will take longer to come back. Kunitz has started shooting from more places and scoring from farther out, while continuing to battle on the boards and rack up the dirty goals near the net.

“I’ve never seen him get open like this, shoot the puck like this, take advantage of his offensive opportunities,” said Bill Guerin, the Pens’ player development coach and a former linemate. “He looks for them now. He doesn’t just chip the puck in and go get it. This guy makes plays all over the ice. He’s in the prime of his career right now. He’s really figured it out.”

But this is not the first time Kunitz has played with a great player, and often Kunitz has helped great players excel. Check out this breakdown by Jason Seidling, the Penguins’ manager of communications:

– 2006-07: Kunitz played with Andy McDonald and Teemu Selanne as the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup. Selanne scored 48 goals, his highest total since 52 in 1997-98, and he put up 94 points, his highest total since 107 in ’98-99.

– 2007-08: Kunitz played with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in Anaheim. Getzlaf’s 24 goals and 82 points were the second-highest totals of his career. Perry scored 0.41 goals per game, the third-highest total of his career.

– 2008-09: Kunitz was traded to Pittsburgh – specifically because the Penguins thought he would fit with Crosby. He played with Crosby and Guerin. The Pens won the Cup.

– 2010-11: Kunitz played with Crosby and Pascal Dupuis. Crosby was headed for one of the best offensive seasons the NHL had seen in years before he got hurt, with 32 goals and 66 points in half a season.

– 2011-12: Kunitz played with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. Malkin won his first Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. Neal had career highs in goals (40), assists (41) and points (81).

– 2012-13: Kunitz is back with Crosby and Dupuis. Crosby is producing points at virtually the exact same rate he did in 2010-11 and leads the NHL with 50. Kunitz could have back-to-back Hart Trophy-winning linemates. Dupuis is scoring goals like never before, too.

That is a pattern. It is not freeloading. It is not luck.

[Nick Cotsonika: How Crosby and two undrafted wingers became NHL's best line]

“When I had Chris Kunitz, he was a player that you could count on night in and night out not to change his game,” said Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, who had Kunitz in Anaheim. “That really is what has allowed him to play with good players, because players playing with him enjoy to have that kind of comfort zone.

“You never have to worry about him being first on the backcheck or first on the forecheck. He’s a tough kid to play against. He’s got hockey sense, and he’s got drive. In my time in Anaheim with him, if any line was struggling, you could put Chris Kunitz on that line and he’d seem to give them a spark.”

THIRD PERIOD: Ducks rolled CBA dice on rich new deals for Getzlaf, Perry

Bob Murray felt like a guinea pig. The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association had reached a new collective bargaining agreement, and in trying to re-sign Getzlaf and Perry, the Ducks’ general manager would be the first to apply it to superstar contracts

“It was always on my mind what I was setting up for the future for everybody else,” Murray said. “We all care greatly about this game, and we don’t want to set a standard that’s going to hurt anything. Hopefully we haven’t here.”

Murray signed Getzlaf, his No. 1 center and captain, to an eight-year, $66 million extension. Then he signed Perry, the 2011 Hart Trophy winner as the league’s most valuable player, to an eight-year, $69 million extension.

That will make Getzlaf’s salary-cap hit $8.25 million, Perry’s $8.625. Those numbers seem steep. But contract terms are limited in the new CBA – seven years, or eight to re-sign – so you can’t spread the money over more years to lower the cap hit.

The theory is that the elite players will still get paid, pushing their cap hits higher, leaving less cap room for the rest. That’s why the NHLPA worried about a middle-class squeeze as it fought term limits in CBA negotiations. That’s why players such as Evgeni Malkin and Jonathan Toews likely will have even higher cap hits when they sign their new deals in the future.

The cap will decrease to $64.3 million next season, the same level it was at last season, and then it will be calculated based on the players receiving 50 percent of hockey-related revenue, down from 57.

“Revenues are going to be important to this,” Murray said. “If revenues don’t increase, it could make it very difficult in the coming years.”

But the Ducks didn’t just close their eyes and cross their fingers. Obviously they project that revenues will rise and the cap will rise again starting in 2014-15. If it rises, the percentage of the payroll going to Getzlaf and Perry will decrease.

“We studied that long and hard in what we did going forward,” Murray said.

[Related: Ducks stars all lined up for next eight seasons]

The bottom line is, the market will evolve. It will look different than it did before. In Murray’s position, you have to predict the future as best you can and do what you think is best for your team.

Getzlaf and Perry could have earned even more on the open market and would have been difficult to replace. The Ducks won that Cup with them in 2007, compete in the same market with the 2012 champion Los Angeles Kings and are contending again this season. Murray said they wanted to send the right message to their fans, their players and “players who want to come to Anaheim in the future.”

“In Anaheim, I think it’s very important we have stars,” Murray said. “I think that’s critical to our organization. In Anaheim, I felt it was just very critical that we keep these two gentlemen going forward. For our situation as an organization right now, it had to happen.”

OVERTIME: O’Reilly offer sheet scared Coyotes into locking up Ekman-Larsson

Oliver Ekman-Larsson can thank the Calgary Flames for his six-year, $33 million extension.

Phoenix Coyotes GM Don Maloney doesn’t like long-term contracts for young players – even those like Ekman-Larsson, a 21-year-old who looks like he could be an elite defenseman for a long time. He wants to pay for performance, not potential.

Maloney spoke to Ekman-Larsson’s agent as long ago as last summer. He wanted to do a shorter-term deal. The agent was willing to wait for a long-term deal. Talks weren’t going anywhere.

Then the Flames signed restricted free agent Ryan O’Reilly to an offer sheet. The Colorado Avalanche matched it to keep O’Reilly, but now the Avs were forced to pay their third-line center a $2.5 million signing bonus this season, even though he would play 29 regular-season games at most, and a $6.5 million salary next season. The deal set his qualifying offer at $6.5 million for the following two seasons, too.

“Once that O’Reilly offer sheet came out, it crystallized for me,” Maloney said. “We cannot risk a potential offer sheet.”

Maloney said the Coyotes would have matched, even though their ownership situation is uncertain now. But they would have lost control of the structure, and there no doubt would have been a number of teams interested in doing something creative.

It looks like Maloney avoided a headache and got a relative bargain. He doesn’t have to worry about a holdout or an offer sheet. He can sit back and enjoy Ekman-Larsson, who plays 25 minutes a night against top players and entered Thursday night plus-8 with 17 points. He’s already a candidate for the Norris Trophy. How much would he have cost if he ended up a finalist?

Ekman-Larsson looks like he will only improve and become more valuable. He has tremendous skill and poise, but his game is still growing. So is his body. He’s listed at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds.

“He’s still physically a young man. He’s really all skin and bones,” Maloney said. “He’s still young. He’s far from the finished product.”

In the end, Maloney paid for performance and potential.

SHOOTOUT: Last shots from around the NHL

– Get 30 GMs in a room before the trade deadline, and you’re going to get some action, right? Well, not with the agenda packed, the schedule compressed and the standings bunched. There are too many buyers and not enough sellers with so many teams still in the race, and that might be the case all the way up to April 3. “I’d be surprised if a lot’s going to go on,” Murray said. “There’s really not a lot of talks going on right now. Quiet.”

– One other problem with this trade deadline: Because of the circumstances, teams will have only about a dozen games left afterward. If you add a depth piece, fine. If you add an impact player, that’s not much time to integrate him into the lineup before the playoffs. You have to weigh the effect on chemistry. “The year we won the Cup in Anaheim, we added one player, and it was Brad May,” Murray said. “So it doesn’t mean you have to do anything.”

– Has Murray approached Teemu Selanne about an extension? “No,” he laughed. “God, no. Teemu’s always … Let him go play golf for a while, then we’ll talk. Get him in a good mood. Hopefully he’s hitting it well.” Selanne turns 43 on July 3. He has been feeling the effects of the compressed schedule lately. But he scored the winner Tuesday night in the Ducks’ big victory over the Chicago Blackhawks, the Ducks are one of the best teams in the league, next season’s schedule won’t be compressed and … Aw, come on, Teemu. Come back.

– The Coyotes have to get the most out of what they’ve got. So they couldn’t wait to get Radim Vrbata back from a foot injury this week. He had missed a month. “To the whole league, he’s a good player. He’s a decent enough player,” Maloney said. “But for us, he helps Martin Hanzal’s game. He’s our skilled player. For a team that’s lacking skill, we can’t afford to have our most skilled guy out.”

– Though the Tampa Bay Lightning have struggled, Martin St-Louis is still going strong. He has 39 points, fourth in the NHL entering Thursday night, at age 37. “As you get older, I think people are expecting you to slow down,” he said. “If you let that creep in your head, I think it’s just going to speed up the process of slowing down. … I feel good out there. I don’t know what you’re supposed to feel like at 37, you know? This is my first time.”

– Yeah, St-Louis benefits from playing with 23-year-old whippersnapper Steven Stamkos, whose 40 points were tied for second in the league entering Thursday night. But it works the other way, too. Stamkos led the league with 21 goals entering Thursday night. St-Louis was second in assists with 32. “He’s 37 years old,” Stamkos said. “He’s still a top player in this league because he wants to improve and wants to be better, and that’s something I’ve been able to pick up specifically from him.”

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