Every time Paul Kariya pulled on the Blue Note, he was, essentially, competing for a bad team.
He signed with the Blues on July 1, 2007 and played every game on the team’s schedule through Nov. 5, 2008, when an injured hip forced him to the sidelines for the remainder of the season.
About two months after that, St. Louis became one of the toughest draws on the NHL slate.
It’s easy to see why optimism abounds in Missouri on the eve of another October puck-drop. Everybody remembers the Blues’ hot finish to last year, but some likely forget their big playoff push came despite a rash of injuries, including the one that forced Kariya into the role of observer.
Now, fresh off a sixth-place finish in the West and their first post-lockout playoff appearance, St. Louis has – with apologies to Brad Boyes and Andy McDonald – its most skilled forward back in the fold.
He scored a goal in the Blues’ first pre-season game Tuesday night as part of a training camp that must be a bit of an eye-opener for Kariya based on the level of talent around him.
Think about it; the last time Kariya played a regular season game with these guys, David Backes was a kid with one goal through 11 games. He ended up with 31 last year and now occupies prime space in any conversation about the U.S. Olympic team.
Chris Mason was playing just his fourth game with St. Louis and had yet to post a ‘W’ when Kariya went out. By season’s end, he had 27 of them and was a driving force behind the squad’s success.
Talk of David Perron and Patrik Berglund was still very much about what they could do, not what they were doing to help entrench St. Louis as a club that could compete with the heavy-hitters in the stacked Central Division.
Heck, T.J. Oshie hadn’t even started his political career yet.
Kariya must feel like a guy who left for a road trip, only to return home and find his modest house had been converted into the Playboy Mansion.
Safe to say a lot has changed in St. Louis, but nothing more significant than the fact they’ve added a top-end point-producer to the mix without moving any bodies or heaping on new salary.
Kariya, who turns 35 on Oct. 16, can be a point-per-game player for the Blues this year. He was on a better pace than that last season, when he put up 15 points in the 11 games he played. Assuming his surgically-repaired hips – he had surgery on them both last year – don’t give him any additional guff, the table is set for Kariya to have his best season since posting 85 points for Nashville in 2005-06.
The guy can still fly, fire and feed.
St. Louis’ top three trios are stuffed with skill, meaning no matter who he lines up with, Kariya will have quality running mates.
The Blues’ transition game is also going to be aided by another new/familiar face, that of young blueliner Erik Johnson. But even adding the 2006 first overall pick to the group after a year on the sidelines won’t match the significance of dropping Kariya into a situation ready-made for success.
It’s easy to project progress in St. Louis based on last year’s surge. But really, how can you not like this team’s chances of advancement given all the young talent it’s gathering, plus the additions of Kariya and Johnson? No team in the Central – and few in the league for that matter – had an off-season plus/minus ratio like St. Louis.
Detroit said goodbye to Marian Hossa, Mikael Samuelsson and Jiri Hudler. Chicago nabbed Hossa, but lost Martin Havlat, while Columbus and Nashville staid the course, banking on improvement from within.
The Blues lost nobody of note, but added a high-end winger and a 6-foot-4, 220-pound defenseman who can skate and move the puck.
How much of a difference can Kariya make? Consider the fact the Blues lost three one-goal games to Vancouver en route to a first round sweep. The other game ended 3-0 for the Canucks after they put an empty-netter on the board.
In other words, St. Louis is right there. And that’s a long way from where they were the last time Kariya was making his sizable contributions.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.