Monday, September 14, 2015

Paajarvi focused on finding fit with Blues

Left wing looking to prove he belongs in NHL after successful stint in Chicago

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When Magnus Paajarvi played a mere 9 minutes, 20 seconds with the Blues last season on Dec. 16, 2014 against the Los Angeles Kings, it didn't seem that way at the time but 13 days later, it appeared to signal the beginning of the end.

Paajarvi, the enigmatic left wing that came to the Blues via trade July 10, 2013 from the Edmonton Oilers along with a 2014 second-round pick (Ivan Barbashev) for the popular David Perron and a 2015 third-round pick, came to St. Louis the same way be came to Alberta when the Oilers selected him with the 10th pick in the 2009 NHL Draft: with plenty of promise and a lot of hype.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Magnus Paajarvi (pictured) will vie for a roster spot when the
Blues open training camp Friday.

But in two seasons with the Blues, Paajarvi found himself in a similar situation that he found himself in with the Oilers: on the outside looking in. Cracking the lineup, particularly playing in a top-six role, quickly became an aberration. So in the Blues' situation, they needed roster space to carry three goalies at the time after the signing of Martin Brodeur and with Brian Elliott returning from a knee injury.

On Dec. 29, the Blues placed Paajarvi on waivers, a move that appeared to signal the end of his tenure in St. Louis. But after clearing waivers, Paajarvi was sent to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League, where he would spend the remainder of the season. 

It wasn't something the 24-year-old expected; it wasn't something Paajarvi wanted. But instead of pouting, instead of fretting over being cast aside by a second NHL franchise, Paajarvi made the most of a challenging situation at the time in hopes of one day earning the trust of the Blues and one day giving himself a shot of being on their radar again.

"It was something new for me. I haven't experienced it before, so I was waiting for somebody to pick me up or I was going to Chicago and I went to Chicago," Paajarvi said. "Honestly, it was great for me. (Wolves coach) John Anderson and the guys down there, they were great with me. They just said, 'Hey, you're going to play a lot. Let's do this together.' It took me about a week or two to get into it, but after that, I felt like my confidence came back. It showed on the ice and it showed in the playoffs, too, and I felt like we should have gone longer than we did. It was great for me to get going, at least because I hadn't been playing that much."

When Paajarvi, who played in 10 games last season (one assist), was put on waivers, there was a brief thought that he could be done in St. Louis. However, that quickly turned to motivation.

"If somebody picked me up, yeah, I'm probably done with this team," he said. "That's how fast it goes. I didn't really think, 'OK, this is it for the Blues,' but I was ready for it. I didn't think, 'OK, I'm done with (the) Blues; I'm never going to play here again.' That's never what I thought, but sure, it was there in the back of my mind that it could happen, but I never thought, 'OK, I'm going to leave this, I don't want to play here.' That never really crossed my mind. It goes so fast, you're kind of open for everything here. It really is (a) special (place)."

Paajarvi went to Chicago with a grain of salt but quickly embraced his role. He was an important player for the Wolves an got top-line minutes and top-player responsibilities. He led the Wolves with three goals in five Calder Cup Playoff games after 11 goals and 29 points in 36 regular season games.

"Honestly, it sucks to go down a level, obviously," Paajarvi said. "I don't want to be there when you're up in the NHL. That's how everybody thinks, but once I got down there, the organization is so great and I felt from the get-go and I told myself I can either cry or I can get stronger and be better and focused on what's good for me in the future. That's what I tried to do. It was definitely in the beginning a transition and all that, but everybody helped me a whole lot. I grew from it, I think. Especially in the playoffs, I felt awesome."

The scouting report on Paajarvi has always included a player with tremendous speed but what's held him back is his willingness, or lack thereof, to engage physically. The Blues have always loved the talent potential -- so did the Oilers for that matter -- but coaches found it challenging and at times frustrating getting him to engage physically.

Coach Ken Hitchcock spoke highly of Paajarvi's skill set but always indicated that they needed him to be more physically noticeable on the ice, and that would help determine whether he was a top six or bottom six forward. More times than not, he was a bottom six forward, many times playing on the fourth line, which wasn't his strong suit. Dmitrij Jaskin passed Paajarvi on the depth chart, making him more expendable last season.

"Honestly, I wish I knew. Surely I needed to play better," Paajarvi said. "I needed to take more opportunities that I got. Sure, I haven't been good enough, but I feel like I am good enough so I have to prove it. That's how I feel.

"... You need to find your role and do that better than anybody else. That's what I'm going to try and do this year; find the role for me. Obviously it's the growing part of it, but I need to find something."

Paajarvi, who was a restricted free agent this past summer and signed a one-year, $700,000 contract after being qualified by the Blues, spoke multiple times with general manager Doug Armstrong over the summer on what his role could be. Thinking about his game and how he played in St. Louis was something that crossed his mind many times ad why things didn't seem to work out previously.

"I feel like we're on the same page at least and now it's really up to me if I want it," Paajarvi said. "Communication is there and I'm just going to go out there and take that shot.

"... Absolutely. You think about (your game) every time you're not playing. You think about, 'OK, what is wrong here; what do I have to do; what am I not doing?' You reflect every day almost."

Despite the positive communication with Armstrong, it would have been only natural for Paajarvi, a Swedish native, to entertain thoughts of playing in Europe.

"No. I had a lot of teams calling, wondering what's going to happen with me," Paajarvi said. "... My mind was North America 100 percent. Sure, if nothing was going to happen, you've got to look (at it). My mind was to play here. I want to play here for 10 more years. That's my mindset. If that doesn't happen, then I'll think about (Europe), but right now, my mindset is 100 percent here."

Armstrong spoke of Paajarvi following the Blues' playoff ouster last season and talked about the positive reports they received from the Wolves on Paajarvi's progress. Armstrong said Paajarvi worked his way back "into the picture" for the upcoming season and Paajarvi will come to camp with likely his best opportunity at not only making the Blues but making his biggest impact.

"I've been here for two years now. I know how we play," Paajarvi said. "Every year, it's more in your backbone and you can just hope it's on your own and your ability and what you need to do. My first year, I kind of needed to get into the system. Now it's just better and better. The opportunity is there and I need to grab it."

His teammates are rooting for him as well.

"He's such a good kid," fellow Swede Alexander Steen said of Paajarvi. "He's a guy that you constantly root for. You want him to do so well. It bothers you that he hasn't been able to secure his spot in the lineup; you're really rooting for him. He goes about himself perfectly, he never gets angry or in the wrong way or negative angry. He just gets fueled and he tries to do everything the right way. He's a great guy for the guys to be around. He's always happy and positive. Everybody's rooting for 'Mags' to have a terrific season."
(Chicago Wolves photo)
Magnus Paajarvi (right) scored 11 goals and had 18 assists in 36 games
after being assigned to the Chicago Wolves of the AHL last season.

And by grabbing the opportunity, Paajarvi, who has reported ahead of training camp leaner than last season, can solidify his place by embracing Hitchcock's "reckless" mentality.

"I think it's more in my mind how I approach things in the game," Paajarvi said. "Sure, you come into camp every year and you feel like you're better than you've ever been, but the difference is I need to change a lot in my mind rather than my body, I think. Sure, I need my speed and I need my strength and all that, but I need to get more reckless in my mind.

"... Speed is my weapon. It's always been. I think this team needs it. I need to be more reckless, I need to be winning more battles. That's what I'm focusing on and I know I can play offensively. I've shown it in this league, I've shown it in Chicago and that's what I want to do. ... They need speed; I've got speed, but I know I need to do a whole lot more than just speed. It's a good foundation for me to bring to the table."

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