Chris Stewart’s turning point this season may have been a talking-to.
St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock pulled his enigmatic winger aside in a hotel lobby in Denver after a morning skate on Feb. 20 for a conversation about expectation. Suffice it to say, Hitchcock did the majority of the speaking.
Stewart’s power and skill level has always been off the charts. His give-a-darn meter, however, has seemed to fluctuate.
Since that particular audience with Hitchcock, though, you can argue he’s been one of the best players in the NHL.
After being held scoreless in Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena, Stewart has seven points in his past four games, and he had eight goals in 13 contests since that particular gathering with Hitchcock.
“It was one of those meetings where you thought he wasn’t going to rip you, because you were playing pretty well,” said Stewart, who has 14 goals and 28 points in 29 games.
“It was a real eye-opener. He told me plain and simple that when I bring that compete level and that courage to the team we’re going to play well as a team.
“I find that the nights I put the work boots on and really compete for my teammates are the nights that I also have the most success on the scoresheet. It’s an easy thing to demand out of yourself.”
The 25-year-old from Toronto did come into the season with best of intentions. Stewart had just 15 goals and 30 points in 79 regular-season games in 2011-12, and there were questions about his desire and his fitness.
There was a school of thought in St. Louis that the campaign explained exactly why the Colorado Avalanche were so willing to include Stewart, their 18th overall draft pick in 2006 and a 28-goal man in 2009-10, in the February 2011 trade that saw ballyhooed defencemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Erik Johnson switch teams.
To help rebound, Stewart amped up his workout regimen in the off-season and says he dropped 18 pounds. He’s now listed at 6-foot-2 and 232 pounds, and contends that he’s more explosive.
Hitchcock’s words that day in Denver, though, seem to be what have pushed things to an entirely different level. Stewart’s the leading scorer on a St. Louis team that is seemingly coming of age.
“I feel I’m more consistent,” he said, comparing this year to last.
If he can keep it going, it could mean a boost to his bank account as well. Stewart will be a restricted free agent next season. He’s on a one-year, $3-million deal.
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