Saturday, March 25, 2017

Through patience and persistence, Paajarvi earning his keep with Blues

Forward has had share of tough times since being acquired in 2013, 
now thriving under new coach after successful stint with staff in AHL

ST. LOUIS -- Sitting at his locker after a morning skate Thursday, Blues forward Magnus Paajarvi was asked about offering words of encouragement to a teammate that is trying to crack the lineup, someone who's been in and out of it and could very well be dealing with levels of frustration.

Paajarvi was asked about teammate Nail Yakupov, who played just his sixth game in the past 21 when the Blues defeated the Vancouver Canucks 4-1 and helping keep the former No. 1 overall pick thinking positively. The question was natural for Paajarvi, who knows a thing or two about what Yakupov must be feeling.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Magnus Paajarvi making strides under new coaching staff, giving the 
Blues what they were expecting when they traded for him in 2013. 

"Oh yeah, I've been there," Paajarvi said with a grin. "Oh yeah, oh yeah, I've been there."

That he has.

Since the Blues acquired Paajarvi, a former first-round pick (10th overall) of the Edmonton Oilers in 2009, on July 10, 2013 along with a 2014 second-round pick (used to take Ivan Barbashev) for David Perron, it's been a bit of a tumultuous relationship between team and player.

Paajarvi, 25, played 55 games in his first season with the Blues in 2013-14, but playing for Ken Hitchcock, particularly being a younger player, can be demanding, and the pressures of being a first-round pick affected him in not only Edmonton but St. Louis as well.

The Blues were getting a project, a player the Oilers had moved on from, and the Blues, much like they did when they acquired Yakupov prior to this season, thought a change of scenery would jumpstart a young player and first-round pick's career.

St. Louis signed Paajarvi to a two-year, $2.4 million contract in 2013 and the process was underway.

But though a slew of injuries and not being able to produce in Hitchcock's system, the Blues placed Paajarvi on waivers on Dec. 29, 2014 for the purpose of assigning him to the American Hockey League's Chicago Wolves if gone unclaimed. And when he went unclaimed, it began a run of assignments to the AHL four times from 2014-2017.

But through it all, Paajarvi signed consecutive one-year, one-way contracts in 2015 and 2016 worth $700,000 and never wavered in his dedication of working back to the NHL and staying dedicated to the Blues.

The Blues hadn't given up, and neither had he.

In 116 games to start his Blues career, Paajarvi produced just nine goals and 13 assists. He's always been touted as a player with an immense amount of speed who never could quite elevate his game to the level the Blues wanted and needed. 

But perhaps Paajarvi, who will play in his 300th NHL game Saturday, wasn't being used properly.

And when the Blues placed Paajarvi on waivers on Oct. 27, 2016, he didn't go down pouting about it when he easily could have. This time, it would be different. It was a chance to go work with an entirely new coaching staff with the Wolves, one led by former Philadelphia Flyers head coach and Wolves coach Craig Berube and assistants Darryl Sydor and Daniel Tkaczuk.

They didn't get Paajarvi simply to help make the Wolves competitive and better, which they were and continue to be this season, but it was with the purpose of elevating Paajarvi to finally understand he has a place in the NHL.

"I grew down there for sure. They helped me a lot," Paajarvi said. "The new coaching staff, they were great with me. Obviously coming up, it gives you a boost, too. I think I got a goal the first game I was up, so that's always nice to get that boost. I've just been kind of pushing since.

"That's what (Berube) told me, and the other coaches as well, Sydor and Daniel Tkaczuk, they work with you daily and they try to stay on you in a positive and good way. It worked out good for me."

Paajarvi was recalled on Feb. 5 along with Kenny Agostino when Robby Fabbri was lost for the remainder of the season. Other than an obvious assignment to the Wolves during the Blues' CBA bye week off to stay skating, Paajarvi has played as advertised -- finally -- when the Blues first acquired him, including his second two-goal game during Thursday's victory, which was also his second career two-goal game (Feb. 5, 2011 being the other).

"He's been flying ever since he's got back up here," center Kyle Brodziak said of Paajarvi. "You can tell, when he's skating, he's a step ahead of everyone else. It creates a lot. It backs their 'D' off. He's able to get in first on the forecheck and create space for everyone out there. He's been great for us.

"He's always been so fast and so good at getting (in) on the forecheck, creating havoc like that. I think maybe just the confidence level. When he's getting his scoring chances, he's burying them. You saw his second goal, he absolutely buried that one. It was a great shot, a really hard shot and he made a nice one."

"You see guys like 'Maggy' playing with tons of confidence," goalie Jake Allen said.

Confidence seems to be the operative word for Paajarvi, who after scoring just nine goals in 116 games to start his Blues career, has seven goals and 10 points in 20 games since with a whopping 20.5 shooting percentage, up from his career number of 8.1 percent.

Three of his seven goals are game-winners.

"Confidence and I'm attacking more," Paajarvi said. "That's my mindset. It's been working out very good since I have gotten up for sure.

"My main thing is the confidence for me. I try to do things and drive the net with or without the puck. Things happen. I got a couple goals here and there and that's always nice for the confidence as well. I play with great guys as well now, so it's nice."

Since Hitchcock was fired on Feb. 1, if there's one player that's benefited more from the coaching change to Mike Yeo is Paajarvi, who talks regularly with Yeo, and the coach keeps feeding him more and more responsibilities on the process.

"I think you saw a couple shifts last night. Units go out there, they have a great shift and they're bringing momentum and they come back quickly after that," Yeo said. "I think that's our job as coaches. If somebody's going, then we have to make sure that we give them a chance to keep going and keep adding what they are to the group. 

"I had one of those meetings (Thursday). That's our job as coaches. You can talk about game plans and X's and O's but the most important part of our job is the interaction with the players, making sure that mentally that they're in the right place to perform. They're the ones that have to do the job. I had a conversation with him (Thursday). I felt like he's played unbelievably for us this year, but I felt like there was a couple games where he started to slip back a bit, so it was just a conversation of the things that he's been doing when he's at his best. It's great to see him get rewarded offensively. It's a huge part for our team obviously if we can have a guy like Magnus capitalizing and creating offense for us. But when you see him going out and doing a certain way, when you see certain things in his game, he's a real effective player for our team."

Paajarvi did score after being recalled in his first game with the Blues on Feb. 6 in a 6-0 win at Ottawa. And on March 1 when the Blues announced that Paajarvi was staying in the NHL the remainder of the season, it was a decision made by Paajarvi based on his play. He's earned spots playing on lines with Paul Stastny and Alexander Steen, to going with Yakupov and Barbashev Thursday before being moved to a line with Perron and Berglund based off his solid play.

Paajarvi, who will be a restricted free agent again this summer, understands windows of opportunity don't last long. So he's taking advantage of the one given to him now and running with it showing that patience and persistence pays off.

"You get a window, you've got to try and take it," Paajarvi said. "There's not a whole lot of them. So far it's been good for me since I've been up. There's not a lot of windows, but once the window comes, you've got to embrace it and take that challenge. Even for guys like me, I might play power play now or get one or two more minutes, we still have to embrace and take that roll because nobody else is going to do it. We have to do it within this team that are healthy right now.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues forward Magnus Paajarvi (middle) cuts through two Vancouver
skaters during a 4-1 victory Thursday in which Paajarvi scored twice.

"... That's how everybody's looking at it. We have to. Guys that don't have as big a role get a bigger role now. We've got to embrace that."

And Paajarvi has, and his teammates notice.

"When a coach shows trust in you like that, it really builds you as a player," said captain Alex Pietrangelo.

"Maggy's having a great year since he's called back up. It's probably the best he's ever played," defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said.

No comments:

Post a Comment