Chris Stewart was one of the most disappointing players in the NHL in 2011-12. After setting St. Louis on fire when he came over in a trade during the 2010-11 season, scoring 15 goals and 23 points in 26 games, Stewart's game regressed in a big way last year. Thanks to the Blues making it into the playoffs and the team sporting the best and most surprising goaltending in the NHL, the scope of Stewart's struggles may have been overlooked. Despite looking like a completely different player than the one that arrived from Colorado, the Blues weren't ready to give up on Stewart, signing him to a one-year, $3 million "prove yourself" contract.
Cut to 2013. Stewart is back playing with intensity and is scoring in bunches. He was arguably the team's MVP over the first half of the season. The Blues are now forced to make a difficult decision: Should they give Stewart a new deal or try to move the forward at the trade deadline now that his value has risen?
There isn't a clear answer to the question above. In fact, there almost never is.
Give credit to Stewart for turning his game around. He went through a demanding training regimen over the summer, causing him to shed some of his extra weight. The result has been a slimmer, quicker player that has regained his confidence and scoring touch.
Through 27 games, Stewart leads the Blues in total points with 26. He has actually built a decent lead over the second best player, David Perron, who checks in with 20. Stewart is tied for the team lead in goals scored (13) with Patrik Berglund.
Outside of the Blues, Stewart's 26 points rank tied for 21st in the NHL. His 13 goals place him in a tie for 10th in the NHL.
All in all, Stewart's played some extremely impressive hockey. He's playing physical, making brilliant passes and finishing his opportunities. Essentially, he's been the opposite of what he was in 2011-12 when he ended the year with just 15 goals and 30 points in 79 games. To give you an idea of just how poor of a performance that was, Stewart's preparing to top last year's totals in roughly 50 fewer games. The story of the 2011-12 version of Chris Stewart was that he looked lost, uninspired and to be blunt, lazy on the ice. There was no work ethic, no drive and no passion.
If you're the Blues, what do you do? It's difficult to give Stewart a long-term deal based on the fact he's not even a full year removed from a horrible campaign. There's also the fear that Stewart's improved passion in 2013 may just be because he's working for a new contract, and he'll just settle back into his old ways once he has a new deal under his belt.
At the same time, Stewart should command a sizable offer on the open market. Teams will pay for the successes he's had in 2010-11 and in 2013, willing to ignore what many hope was a fluke in 2011-12. If the Blues want to retain Stewart, they may have to spend a bit more than they're wanting to, especially considering the Blues already have a ton of pressing needs to address when 2013 concludes (Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk, Berglund).
Then there's the idea of trading Stewart at the deadline. This idea, one that's pretty unpopular among fans in St. Louis, isn't that far-fetched. Knowing that Stewart could lose his motivation and become a shell of a player and knowing that he'll command more money and more years, the Blues might be wise to shop the forward. Realistically, there may not be a better time to trade him than the present.
Thanks to the lockout, this year's trade deadline has very few sellers. As a result, talent is at a premium. The Blues may be able to get some major bang for their buck if they were to ship Stewart to a new team prior to April 3rd. The team could wait until summer to move him (he will be a restricted free agent), but his value won't be close to what it is now as numerous teams try to find that final piece that leads them to a Cup.
These are the types of decisions that no one wants to make. These are the types of decisions where a general manager earns his money. Stewart is the type of player that you could live to regret trading, especially if his 2013 effort is the pattern for the future. St. Louis boasts one of the best GMs in the business in Doug Armstrong and they'll need him to be at his best when he ultimately decides Chris Stewart's future with the Blues.