ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The first day of training camp for the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday included a familiar sight—Chris Stewart converting a pass from T.J. Galiardi into a goal during an intrasquad game.
After a breakout season by Stewart that coincided with the Avalanche pulling off the biggest turnaround by a Western Conference team since the NHL expanded to 30 teams in 2000, Colorado’s star right-winger got back to work anxious to improve individually and to help the Avs improve as a team.
“I don’t think it was fluke, what we did last year,” Stewart said. “I think we’ve got the guys on the team to do it again this year, if not better.
“Finishing in eighth place and making the playoffs, that’s not good enough this year. We’re going to contend for the division. We’re going to be up there for the long haul.”
The Avs became the first Western team to make the playoffs after finishing last in the conference the previous season since expansion. Stewart was at the centre of the turnaround, scoring a team-high 28 goals and finishing second on the club in scoring with 64 points in 77 games.
“He brings a lot to the table,” goalie Craig Anderson said. “He’s big. He’s strong. He’s fast and he’s got a great shot.
“He took huge strides last year, stepping up to the first line playing with Paulie (Paul Statsny) and Galli (Galiardi. He’s the type that can bang a guy in the corner or he can beat you with his speed or he can handle you with the stick. It’s just great to see him put it all together.”
Stewart said he dedicated the summer to trying to make himself better, consulting with a nutritionist, getting his diet down pat and working out daily to improve his conditioning and his game.
This time around, Stewart said he also came to camp more confident and secure in his position on the team, allowing him to focus on refining fundamentals aimed at making him a better player rather than scrapping for practice time to try to prove he belongs.
Avalanche coach Joe Sacco noted the difference right away.
“He really looks like he’s a lot more confident than he was at this time last year,” Sacco said. “Part of that is because of the training he did in the off-season to get himself ready.
“He certainly looks like he’s in better shape than he was last year. He was moving very well out there today.”
The level of work put into his craft and his level of confidence go hand in hand, Stewart said.
“I do have more confidence but even with that confidence, you need the work ethic. That’s what makes you a great player in this league,” Stewart said.
The 18th overall selection in the 2006 draft, Stewart made the Avalanche out of training camp last season but started so slowly that four games into the season he was demoted to Lake Erie of the AHL on Oct. 20. He was recalled three days later, after the Avs were hit by injuries, but the demotion nevertheless jolted Stewart. He came back with a hunger and a drive to show his capabilities, and as his play took off, so did the Avs. Stewart scored all of his goals and 63 of his 64 points following his recall.
“After I got sent down, I came back with a new attitude, a little hungrier,” Stewart said. “I thought I had a lot to prove in the league, and to my teammates.
“With the injuries, I got the opportunity to play some big minutes and just seeing Joe (Sacco) putting that trust in me, that definitely was the turning point for me.”
Now, he’s looking forward to working his teammates to fulfil the rising expectations for the Avalanche.
“We’re not going to have the surprise factor any more. Everybody is going to be ready for us,” he said. “We’re going to have to come to play every night.”
The team’s opening training camp practice was a start.
“It was still a little messy out there, but there were a lot of smiles and it was good to see the boys again,” Stewart said. “It’s definitely a good feeling in this room right now.”