Thursday, May 10, 2012

Stewart enters most important summer of career

Blues power forward will attack off-season training
aggressively, determined to getting back to "being Chris Stewart"

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Chris Stewart heard all the preseason hype. It didn't fall on deaf ears.

"Obviously I didn't score the 40 goals that everyone was talking about," Stewart proclaimed.

Yeah, Stewart was rated in that category [this writer included] of players who will have a breakout year. In fact, getting to 35-40 goals was not out of reach for a raw talent that's big, strong and has hands and a skill-set to go with that strength.
(Getty Images)
Chris Stewart (25) will work a personal trainer this summer in Toronto in
order to have a better summer workout schedule in hopes of returning
back to form after a down season.

And following back-to-back 28-goal seasons, there was much anticipation for Stewart, who was the centerpiece in the blockbuster trade a year ago that also fielded defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and sent the Colorado former No. 1 overall pick Erik Johnson and Jay McClement.

But not only did Stewart, a restricted free agent to be stumble, he took a nosedive statistics-wise that not many expected.

He finished the season with 15 goals and 30 points in 77 games which included being a healthy scratch twice in the regular season and twice in the playoffs as well as a three-game suspension imposed by the NHL resulting from an infraction against Detroit's Niklas Kronwall.

Stewart went from being a top-six forward to getting very limited minutes for Ken Hitchcock for much of the season on the third or fourth line. There didn't seem to be a fit for Stewart on many nights.

Not the way the 24-year-old Toronto native envisioned things going.

"When you do struggle a little bit, it starts to get your confidence," Stewart admitted earlier this week. "You try to change your game or over-compensate. You can't really worry about it.

"I've got to be the player that I am. I've got to do the things that made me successful this year. I've got to get back to being Chris Stewart, just be me and playing my game. I got myself into this. I'm the only one that can get myself out of it and I'll do it."

And by getting himself out of whatever was wrong this season includes a different summer workout regimen this off-season.

Stewart's fitness level was a topic of discussion this season often, with some saying that his fitness was not up to par and that he came into camp out of shape and it led to the sub-par numbers.

In a way, Stewart may have acknowledged that himself by taking a different approach to get himself ready for 2012-13 by hiring a personal trainer back home in Toronto.

"I'm going to be working with Matt Nichol, who's an established trainer in Toronto," Stewart said. "He's had some big-name guys coming out of there. I'm going to train with them for the first time in the summer and do the usual stuff, work with my track coach and really work on the speed aspect of my game, go to a nutritionist, get on a diet aspect, come into camp in good shape and get ready to go next year."

What prompted the change?

"I talked to a guy like [teammate] Jason Arnott, who really prides himself on his nutrition and who really takes care of himself," said Stewart, who often played with Arnott on a line this season. "We talked about it during the year, but at the end of the year, we sat down, talked about it and he really said if I can commit myself to the gym this summer and come back here that I can be a difference-maker next year."

Being a difference-maker is what the Blues hoped for this year but didn't come close to getting.

"I didn't come close to [the expected numbers]. That's a bummer, but I've been a team-first guy all year," Stewart said. "Just because I struggled for a good part of the season here doesn't overlook the [team] success. We did great all year. It's about sacrifices. Next year I expect to be on top of my game.
(Getty Images)
Blues winger Chris Stewart (25) worked his way back up the lineup in the
playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings.

"You can't really read into the hype or the hoopla. Everyone's entitled to write what they want. I do see myself as a goal-scorer in this league. That's something I can do. I think this year was a learning experience and a good year learning how to be a pro and what you've got to do to be successful in this league and look towards next year."

Stewart is in the same situation that teammate T.J. Oshie was in last summer, a restricted free agent possibly looking for security with a long-term contract. Oshie was given a one-year deal by general manager Doug Armstrong, who basically said Oshie had to go out and prove his worth in order to get a long-term extension. Oshie, who's a restricted free agent himself, likely will earn himself that extension with a strong, 54-point season.

Stewart is in the same boat. He could very well get a one-year, prove-yourself deal and have the motivation to go out next season and have a monster year. But anything like this past season could prompt the Blues to look elsewhere when the time presents itself.

In any light, Stewart knows that this summer will go a long way in determining his future here.

"I'm kind of excited to get into the off-season here and get a good summer under by belt and training, kind of refresh and start over and build my career back up," Stewart said. "I think this is probably the biggest summer of my career. I'm coming off my worst season offensively, so I'm going to go back to the drawing board, work on the skills and get back to the player that I was the year before."

The Blues would gladly have that physical, imposing, difference-maker back .. the one that finished the season against Los Angeles.

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