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Blues send a strong signal by signing Kariya

by Larry Wigge /

St. Louis Blues president John Davidson had a big, wide smile on his face when he was talking about the three players his team had just picked in the first round of the 2007 Entry Draft back on June 22.

But when the conversation switched abruptly from the future and the team’s "brick-by-brick" approach to hand-picking the right players to how active the Blues would be in free agency, Davidson’s smile was replaced by a furrowed-brow response about money and fiscal responsibility.

It wasn’t that Davidson didn’t like any of the unrestricted free agents who figured to be available on July 1 — it was that the dollars and non-sense connected with the big names appeared to be out of line with the Blues’ thinking.

St. Louis Blues president John Davidson believes that Paul Kariya is a foundation player who is capable of helping turn the team around.
"But," Davidson added. "if a player we aren’t expecting to be there that we really, really like … a player who would not only add to our roster but would be a foundation player that could help us sell tickets … I think I could twist (owner) Dave Checketts’ arm enough to get the money to make a good run at him."

Davidson's proviso added a little mystery to free-agency season in St. Louis.

That’s when the name surfaced.: At the last minute, Paul Kariya told the Nashville Predators that he would prefer to test the free-agent market. Voila!

Checketts’ arm was twisted by Davidson for a player who was a foundation player — and one who could help the Blues sell tickets.

Davidson conducted a full-court press on Kariya, first talking to Kariya along with Checketts. Then came sales pitches from Hall of Fame defenseman Al MacInnis, coach Andy Murray and Blues’ stars Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight. All extolled the virtues of playing in St. Louis.

But Kariya was already quite familiar with the Blues.

The Predators played St. Louis eight times in each of Kariya's two seasons with Nashville, and Kariya helped his team post a 15-1 record against its Central Division rival. But five of last season's games were decided by one goal, and it was clear the Blues were a much-improved team in the second half of the season after Murray was hired as coach.

"I knew what kind of team they had," Kariya said. "Every game seemed like a one-goal game or a shootout game — just a tough, tough battle. I knew the team was headed in the right direction hockey-wise. It seemed like a good fit."

So, with the addition of Kariya to the Blues’ lineup, are the Blues closer to turning things around? Murray sure thinks so.

"It’s the unpredictability of coaching against one of the top five players in the game," Murray said when asked about the benefits of adding Kariya. "He’s scary. Every time he’s on the ice you were worried because you knew something was going to happen.

"He makes things happen with his speed, with the ability he has to separate from a defender. He out-thinks you. With his skill and creativity, he’s like a Michael Jordan or Joe Montana quarterbacking the offense."

After seeing Kariya score a power-play goal just 20 seconds into the Blues’ first man-advantage situation in their first preseason game against Atlanta and then produce three of his four assists on the power play against Dallas two nights later, Davidson marveled at the skill, creativity, character and production of his latest well-chosen brick for the Blues.

"You see the speed, that’s clear," Davidson said. "But the thrill and excitement of it comes from seeing how he kind of takes a photograph of everything happening around him in his mind ... and then reacts with his skills and those magical hands of his.

"Where things happen on the ice in a micro-second, it appears that Paul is able to dissect everything that is about to happen, slow it down in his mind and then make some remarkable play or shot. He’s clearly one of the game’s best thinking-man’s players."

The Blues missed the playoffs by 15 points last season. But there would have been reason for optimism even if St. Louis had only re-acquired Tkachuk from Atlanta and traded for backup goaltender Hannu Toivonen from Boston. That’s largely because of the work Murray did behind the bench after taking over for Mike Kitchen in December. From that point on, the Blues were 28-17-9.

"We didn’t make a lot of moves, but there’s a feeling in this locker room that we can be much better than we were under Andy," center Ryan Johnson said. "Kariya is here and Walt (Tkachuk) is back. And Erik Johnson looks like a great prospect on defense. But it’s much more than that.

"Look at all the injuries we had last season. (Defenseman) Jay McKee is a big part of this team and he only played in 20-something games. Same for Dan Hinote and Martin Rucinsky. Add how much more guys like Lee Stempniak and David Backes and Jay McClement can grow. The feeling in this room is that we know we can be better."

Murray’s game plan starts with discipline and defensive responsibilities all over the ice, but he’s also got that creative frame of mind offensively.

Defensively, the Blues start with goaltender Manny Legace (60-23-8 the last two seasons in Detroit and St. Louis). Murray is counting on Toivonen or Jason Bacashihua to do better than the combination of Curtis Sanford, Bacashihua and Marek Schwarz did (11-20-8) last season. The defense includes McKee, a former cornerstone for some great teams in Buffalo, former Rookie of the Year Barret Jackman, Canadian Olympic gold-medal winner Eric Brewer and Bryce Salvador, along with Christian Backman and Johnson, the first pick overall in the 2006 Entry Draft who led all defensemen in scoring in the WCHA as a freshman at the University of Minnesota last season.

Up front, Murray moved Tkachuk to center last season and likes the size he can bring to the team against bigger centers like San Jose’s Joe Thornton. Tkachuk will start the season centering Kariya and Brad Boyes (26 goals and 43 assists for the Bruins in 2005-06), whom the Blues acquired from Boston at the trading deadline in February. McClement, Stempniak (who improved from 14 goals as a rookie in ‘05-06 to 27 last season) and Backes figure to be together as well. Weight and Rucinsky also have a history of producing points.

"Depth-wise we’re much stronger than when I came in here last December," Murray observed. "But the slate is clean. This team has to make the commitment to play with the same tenacity and meaning as it did down the stretch.

"I’m not a genie. I can’t just wish the effort. It’s up to the players to believe in themselves and want to work hard to make it to the next level."

If nothing else, Kariya should help the Blues considerably on special teams — St. Louis was next-to-last on the power play and 25th in penalty killing. Kariya, Tkachuk, Boyes and Johnson alone should make the Blues power play better. It also doesn’t hurt that Kariya was 7-for-11 in shootouts last season.

Twelve seasons in the NHL at a high level is a testament to how good Kariya has been. It’s something he’s very proud of.

"It’s funny when you think about it," Kariya said. "I remember reading somewhere that the average person changes jobs like seven or eight times in a lifetime now. I haven’t changed jobs, just cities, where I’m doing my job. I really feel fortunate to have been able to earn a living at something that I really love doing, where every experience is new and it helps you grow as a person. At the end of the day, your real life is judged more than just on winning and losing, but rather that you’ve learned what works and what doesn’t."

Some people say great players have to be at least a little bit selfish. Kariya disagrees — and he’ll argue that point for hours.

"I don’t think being selfish ever plays a role in sports, whether it is scoring goals or whatever," he said. "I think you have to be dedicated to your profession and the players around you. You’ve got to love what you do and put in the extra work it takes for you and your team to be better.

"When you combine talent and hard work, I think you can have a magical combination. A Michael Jordan, for instance, was one of the hardest-working athletes ever. Can you tell me that either he or Wayne Gretzky or Joe Montana was more interested in statistics than he was in helping his team be the best it could be? Of course, not."

After watching his old pal Teemu Selanne finally win a Stanley Cup, Kariya would like to think that he’s ready to win one as well.

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