It's hard not to think of Chris Stewart's 2013-14 season as a slow, smothering banishment. He entered the season with St. Louis as its reigning top scorer, but that feels like an eternity ago. He struggled to find his consistency and fell as far as the fourth line.
Then came the trade to the lowly Sabres, with Stewart heading to Buffalo as part of the Ryan Miller swap. Looking back on it, plenty of players would sugarcoat their feelings and talk about what a great opportunity it was. Not Stewart. He tells it like it is, which is extremely refreshing.
“It was kind of frustrating," Stewart said. "Being traded from the first place to the last place team in the league, that was definitely a surprise. But I got there, and I’m willing to go anywhere a team wants me and is going to show me that respect, give me a chance to showcase my talents. So I’m excited to be there. We made a lot of changes in the off-season. We’re going to have a team next year with Teddy Nolan leading the charge. We’re going to be ready to compete and surprise a lot of teams.”
And where does Stewart fit into that puzzle? You never know what you're going to get with him performance-wise. There's no doubting his raw ability. He's a hulking power forward, 6-foot-2 and an honest 231 pounds, and still squarely in his prime at 26. He's a legitimate goal scorer when he's focused and on his game, having notched 28 twice. He's capable of taking a team on his back when he's hot. He sniped 15 goals in 26 games after the Colorado Avalanche traded him to St. Louis during the 2010-11 season.
On the other hand, coaches have called Stewart's work ethic into question on and off throughout his career. This is a talented player, with a first-round draft pedigree, and his coaches expect high output from him every game. When they haven't gotten that, they've pushed Stewart down the depth chart and even into the press box on occasion.
To his credit, though, Stewart recognizes he needs to work harder. He knows he isn't playing at his ceiling, and that he wasn't a fit in St. Louis any longer.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that I can be an elite power forward in this league," Stewart said. "There’s things I can do that guys can’t. When I got to St. Louis I had a pretty good start there, and then the next year they brought in a bunch of older guys. That’s nothing to complain about. There are good hockey players there. It was definitely team-first and I took a backseat to some of the guys there that had been there longer than me. Going to Buffalo with a young team, it’s up to me to grab the bull by the horns and just demand that ice time.”
One way Stewart intends to earn those minutes: entering the season in peak condition. Typically, he trains in the Greater Toronto Area, but Stewart's twin boys were born two months ago, so he decided to stay in Buffalo. He's had an eye-opening experience training with Cody McCormick and Matt Ellis.
"They’re two guys who’ve been in this league purely based on work ethic," Stewart said. "The way they work is second to none, and that’s something I can add to my game. Working with those guys, really pushing me throughout the summer, has been great.”
Stewart is clearly motivated. The question is where, geographically, that motivation will take him. He's in the final year of his contract, so he's a great bet to be traded by March if the Sabres aren't contenders in the East. That said, in a perfect world, he envisions the Sabres surprising the competition.
“Look at the Colorado Avalanche two years ago," Stewart said. "They were a last-place team, and they were arguably one of the best teams in the league last year. So the past is the past. You look at our team now and there are 13 or 14 new faces. So we come in and think of last year as an anomaly. There’s nothing we can do now. We can worry about the future. I hear everybody talking about tanking for Connor McDavid. That’s not in my DNA, personally. I was with St. Louis for four years, and we were Stanley Cup contenders every year. So that’s how I’m going to approach it. It’s playoffs or bust.”
So Stewart sees the glass as half full. Now it's up to him to fill the net.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin