Sunday, February 20, 2011

Stewart fits bill of NHL's top power forwards

New Blues acquisition quit the game as a
teen for couple years, re-emerging into rising star

ST. LOUIS -- Growing up in a family of seven, including five younger sisters and one older brother, Chris Stewart understood the hardships that his mother and father had to go through just to raise a family.

It was not easy for Norman and Sue Stewart.

Despite the tough way of living for Stewart and his family, he still loved the game of hockey. But expenses of putting a child through hockey were not cost-effective.

Stewart quit hockey for two years when he was 14. He had the body of a football player, which was something that definitely caught his eye and something he considered just because it was more affordable.

But Stewart and his older brother Anthony found their way onto the North York Jr. Canadiens, a Junior A hockey club. A team representative thought so highly of the brothers, all their expenses were paid for.

Through all the trials and tribulations, it all worked out, and Chris Stewart arrived in the National Hockey League, as did his brother.

Brendan Shanahan, Jarome Iginla, Keith Tkachuk, Ryan Smyth, Bill Guerin, Todd Bertuzzi. They're names that are synonymous with big, strong players that didn't mind playing in the so-called dirty areas to find success.

Blues fans know what that sort of player is all about, since Shanahan and Tkachuk showcased themselves on many nights here playing the power forward role to a tee.

Saturday night was the welcoming party of 23-year-old Chris Stewart in a Blues uniform, and if the two-goal performance in a 9-3 win against the Anaheim Ducks is any indication, Stewart will be a big hit with his newfound fans here in the Gateway City. And he'll be a Blue for a long time.

Stewart, at 6-foot-2 and 228-pounds, Stewart was originally drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in the first round (18th overall in 2006). He's is sculpted like the perfectly molded skater that fits the power forward role dead-on. The 23-year-old from Toronto said it was easy to know who he wanted to model himself after once he figured out the ice rink was the way to go instead of the gridiron.

Although all the above candidates were mentioned at one time or another by Stewart, a certain member of the Atlanta Thrashers always caught his eye.

"Honestly, my brother," Stewart said, referring Anthony, who Chris played with when the two were in the OHL. "It was his last year in the OHL, it was my first year in the OHL (with the Kingston Frontenacs), we had the chance to play together on the same team. He finally just took me under his wing and I learned first hand.

"... He molded his game after Todd Bertuzzi and his game. He's a big, fast, tough power forward, goes to the tough areas, stick up for your teammates, pretty decent and tight hands."

Sound familiar?

Both of Stewart's power play goals Saturday night -- right in front of the net -- came off a scrum and another off a redirection of a Kevin Shattenkirk feed.

Both Stewart and Shattenkirk became new members of the Blues with the blockbuster trade with Colorado that saw Erik Johnson and Jay McClement move out west.

"They took me in with open arms," Stewart said of the Blues. "EJ was a big part of this team. We were both shocked on both sides. Hopefully, it works out for the both of us."

There's a certain art to playing in front of the net. It may not be pretty, but it is an art form, and Stewart credits Smyth with a lot of the tutelege.

"Just getting low on your legs, a lot of power comes from your legs," Stewart said. "A big body like myself, it's going to be hard for guys to move you, especially with the new NHL rules.

"I'm just most comfortable. I like seeing pucks, I like tipping pucks. I try to model my game off guys like (Tomas) Holmstrom and Ryan Smyth. My first year in the NHL, I got to learn from Ryan Smyth personally. I'm a big body and the goal can't stop what he can't see."

The Blues agree, and they liked Stewart enough that they parted with the top overall pick of 2006 in Johnson, who still at 22 could blossom into a cornerstone defenseman the Avalanche now get the opportunity to groom. But the Blues couldn't pass up the opportunity to bring in another David Backes-type player.

"Stewy is a big, strong body. He gets to the dirty areas," Blues winger Alex Steen said. "He scored a lot of goals against us last year just doing that going to the front and (Paul) Stastny would find him, tip something in. He's going to be a big asset.

"Every night, you're going to get the work ethic out of him. You can't have enough of those guys. ... He's going to be a good player and he's just going to get better and better with the work ethic that he has."

In his Blues debut, Blues coach Davis Payne wasted little time in using Stewart and Backes together on the same line. The payoff, according to the Blues' coach, is grand.

"Now they've got to deal with two big bodies," Payne said, speaking of the opposition. "The defensemen have to expend energy to defend both guys. I think that's valuable, and on the flip side of that, you're trying to defend big bodies and chase a guy like Andy McDonald. To me, that makes for a lot of elements that can work in our favor."

Stewart, who scored a career-high 28 goals and added 64 points a season ago in 77 games, had 32 points (15 goals) in 37 games in a season that took away 21 games because of a broken hand sustained in a November 21 fight with Minnesota's Kyle Brodziak. At the time, he played in 23 games and had 25 points (11 goals, 14 assists).

Now healthy, the Blues are anxious and eager to work a scorer into a system as they desperately need another big body and another added element with a nose for the net.

Sounds a lot like Iginla, doesn't it?

"When I made the NHL, that's the kind of the guy I look up to and mold my game after," Stewart said. "He's an up-and-down winger, two ways. He plays with his heart on his sleeve, sticks up for teammates and is a great leader."

Added Payne, "You're talking about guys scoring with people on them, can score in traffic. There's a certain knack for playing through those certain types of battles, a certain knack for positioning yourself on both of his goals. ... The ability to drive through sticks, drive through contact knowing what your strength and advantage is. I think this is what makes him a productive player.

"I think with Stewart, a guy that can play around the net-front, can finish with a guy on top of him, a guy on him. The battle situations that he can find in space and create plays will also open up some areas for the guys around him. We feel these are guys that fit into our mix extremely well."

Stewart's new teammates are certainly aware they've now got under their wing the 'Blues Killer'.

That's what Stewart was dubbed by his new teammates.

"They were calling me the Blues killer," Stewart said laughing; he has eight goals and 15 points in nine career games against St. Louis. "I found that kind of funny."

"I don’t have their stats, but I think he’s only averaging about nine or 10 points against us," Backes joked. "He's a prototypical power forward, it's down the wall hard and you don’t want to get in his way because he’ll run you over. If you think you’re going to get a good lick on him, he’s making a move around you and making a good play. Obviously he’s a great player that we’re glad to have. He’ll do those things in a Blue Note just as well as he did in an Avalanche jersey."

The Blues are counting on Stewart running over those obstacles, just as he did growing up.

"I closed the chapter on Colorado as of (Saturday)," Stewart said. "I'm happy to be here. I'm glad to be a Blue. We've got a bright future here. We're in a playoff race and it's going to be a dogfight to the end."

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