When Paul Stastny signed a four-year, $28 million deal as a free agent to join the St. Louis Blues on July 1, he probably would not have envisioned playing most of this season centering the third line.
But that’s more or less how it’s worked out.
Between the early-season shoulder injury, suffered in just the fourth game of the season, and perhaps a difficult adjustment to a different NHL organization for the first time in his career, Stastny struggled at times in the first half of the season.
"It is not surprising to me that he could have gotten off to a slow start," a rival Western Conference team executive told ESPN.com. "Sometimes it is difficult for the high-profile free-agent signings to go into a really strong team and dominate right off the bat since there are so many dominant players already. Especially a player like him that had been in one place for so long. For me, the measure of a player like this is that he fits in and finds a way to contribute as the season goes on, and I think that is what you are seeing here."
With 22 points (6 goals, 16 assists) in his past 28 games, Stastny has looked much stronger in the second half, which is good timing for a Blues team hoping to do damage in the playoffs.
"A long ways," Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock said when asked Friday how far Stastny’s game has come throughout the season.
"It was a tough deal for him because just as he gets going, he gets hurt," the veteran coach said. "He comes back, Jori Lehtera is up and running, so he’s playing in the 3-hole. He’s one of those guys, he’s not a great skater, but the more minutes he plays, the better he plays. So we find minutes for him. Zone faceoffs, if you look, he takes a lot of D-zone faceoffs, he plays both ends of special teams now, he plays between the third- and fourth-most minutes on the hockey club up front."
Stastny, again one of the NHL’s best faceoff men this season (winning 58.5 percent of his draws), averages 17:15 minutes per game, sixth among Blues forwards overall, and more than Lehtera’s 16:33 per game.
But it’s Lehtera who rekindled that great chemistry with Vladimir Tarasenko that the two had a few years ago in the KHL, so the Finnish center has had the No. 2 center job most of the season on a line that also includes Jaden Schwartz.
With David Backes centering Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie on the top unit, that leaves Stastny centering the third line, which of late has been with Dmitrij Jaskin and Patrik Berglund, a unit that’s been effective.
"That line with him and Jaskin and Berglund, they’ve had great chemistry, they’ve really played well," Hitchcock said. "They play a real strong cycle game."
It certainly speaks to the talent and depth up front that the Blues have that they can roll out a top nine of that quality.
Still, you know that deep down Stastny has to be surprised how things have worked out given the splash the Blues made July 1 in getting him.
"We’ve had different line combos, whatever Hitch is comfortable with, you just go with it," Stastny said, shrugging, in an interview with ESPN.com on Friday in Toronto. "A good team like this, you have a lot of depth."
The adjustment to St. Louis hasn’t been seamless even though he grew up in this city with his father, Hall of Famer Peter Stastny, playing his last two seasons with the Blues.
"It’s not as easy as people think, just because I was going back home," Paul Stastny said. "I was 10 years in Denver, two years of college and eight years with Colorado, it was a big change. The biggest change is leaving teammates that you built a great friendship with. I think as the season has gone on here, it’s gotten easier and easier to adapt."
Getting the shoulder injury right at the start of the season set him back, too.
"And when you come back, everyone will tell you it still takes three to four weeks to really get comfortable," Stastny said.
He may also have come back a bit too early from the injury.
"In hindsight, yeah, maybe," Stastny said. "But you’re trying to do everything you can to help the team."
By the time Stastny returned from missing eight games with the shoulder injury, Lehtera and Tarasenko had found an unreal partnership, and there was no way Hitchcock was going to toy with that.
But to his credit, Stastny has come on in the second half. "As the season has gone on, I feel like I’ve gotten stronger and better," he said.
Having a center of his quality in a third-line role is a matchup advantage for the Blues that few teams have, one that could become paramount come the playoffs.
Last spring, Stastny put up 10 points (5-5) in Colorado’s seven-game loss to Minnesota in the opening round, and overall in his career, he has 18 points (8-10) in 22 playoff games.
The regular season may not have gone quite like the Blues or Stastny had hoped for the 29-year-old center, but the postseason is just about a month away, and you have that feeling that he’s going to make the most of it then.