ST. LOUIS -- Paul Stastny entered the summer of 2014 with a choice, one that would affect his immediate NHL future.
That choice involved a chance to go home to St. Louis, where he lives most of his childhood because his father, Peter Stastny, played his final two seasons with the Blues.
Stastny was thrilled about starting the next chapter of his career in St. Louis.
But after signing a four-year contract with St. Louis on July 1, there were naturally expectations to live up to, most of which would come from those judging from the outside. Those expectations come with the territory when you're arguably the biggest free-agent center on the market.
Through 64 games in his first season with the Blues, Stastny has 42 points (14 goals, 28 assists), or 0.66 points per game, which is below his career average of 0.85 entering this season. But to those on the inside, particularly Stastny's teammates, coaches, and management, his performance has been on the rise just in time for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Stastny enters the Blues' game Sunday against the Detroit Red Wings sixth on the team in scoring. In 2013-14, his final season with the Colorado Avalanche, he had 25 goals, the most since scoring 28 in his rookie season, and 60 points in 71 games.
However, St. Louis' success isn't based on a dominant player or two. It's a collective effort, and Stastny is just a piece of the puzzle. Even though it wasn't by design initially, Stastny has spent most of the season as the third-line center. He got his 500th NHL point Saturday against the Minnesota Wild.
"Expectations were so high, but we're a team that wins and succeeds on four lines, six 'D,' and a goaltender," said right wing T.J. Oshie. "So to say there's one guy that's going to come in and kind of steal the show, it doesn't really work like that. But [Stastny's] coming in, definitely a new system for him, and I think he's adapted really well to it. ... He's coming around. I think he's doing a great job and the points are coming."
For Stastny, who spent the past 10 years in Denver, two at the University of Denver and eight with the Avalanche, it's not easy letting go, even if it means a chance to return to his childhood roots. He was in a comfort zone with Colorado, which selected him in the second round of the 2005 NHL Draft. Stastny was acclimated to a more offense-oriented system and immediately made an impact his rookie season.
However, when he became a free agent, not only was signing with the Blues a chance to come home, it was an opportunity to play with Oshie, David Backes and Kevin Shattenkirk, all of whom played with him on the United States team at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Stastny got married not long after signing the contract and was overjoyed with the "welcome home" aspect. He got off to a rousing start before a shoulder injury sidelined him for eight games, slowing his adaptation to his new team.
"It's a whole different thing: different system, different practices, and you're trying to fit in, maybe trying to overdo it or play to someone's style, overthink maybe, and then you have an injury that kind of sets you back," Stastny said. "It takes a while to get back, but as the year's gone on, the more games I've played, I've developed more trust through the coaching staff. They realize they can play me. That's just normal when you're a new guy coming into a new team. They know who they can put there and with a new guy, he's got to earn the trust of the coaching staff. I think I've been able to do that."
Stastny had four points in two games before injuring his shoulder the fourth game of the season. When he returned, Stastny had two goals and three points in 13 games and had a hard time catching up. His struggles led to coach Ken Hitchcock saying before a Dec. 3 game against the Nashville Predators that the Blues "need more from [Stastny]."
Stastny responded with a four-game point streak (four goals, one assist) and began to develop chemistry on the third line with rookie Dmitrij Jaskin, who's benefited from having a veteran like Stastny as his center, much as Nathan MacKinnon did with the Avalanche last season and even as far back as Chris Stewart, who had 28 goals his second season with Stastny as his center.
Stastny has taken advantage of an increase in ice time and is used by Hitchcock in all situations, including special teams. Hitchcock attributes Stastny's improved play to one particular area.
"His checking," Hitchcock said. "He's playing through the competition. He's playing through the body and through the hands. His checking is underrated and the harder he checks, the more turnovers he creates and the more offense he creates. That's what's changed for me. And in order to check, you've got to skate. So he's skating at a higher pace, he's checking, he's playing harder in those areas, he's got more endurance doing those things and it's affecting his game positively everywhere else."
That includes the faceoff dot, where Stastny is fifth in the NHL (58.2 percent) among centers who have played at least 40 games. He's been at 50 percent or better on faceoffs in 17 of 18 games and 20 of the past 22, including 60 percent or better 13 times.
"You constantly want to be the best out there," Stastny said. "It's so important to have puck possession."
Stastny said he's not concerned about those who question his point production from afar. What the Blues need is a complete body of work; as long as it's there and the team is winning, that's all that matters.
"I think over the course of the year, the cream kind of rises to the top. You've just got to keep playing better, keep playing your way, keep getting better and building that confidence and keep going," he said.
"There's two different [kinds of] people: people that understand the game of hockey and people who enjoy watching it. As long as you've got the trust and respect from your teammates and you're doing things for your teammates and your team, that's the most important thing. Sometimes you're playing different roles some nights, whether you're in an offensive role or in a defensive role or playing with different linemates. That just comes with the territory."