COLUMBUS, Ohio - When Paul Kariya signed with St. Louis Blues this summer, he wasn't concerned that the team had missed the playoffs in two straight seasons.
The veteran forward saw enough potential for a bright future to put his name on a three-year contract.
"I thought it was a really good fit hockey wise," said Kariya, who signed an US$18-million deal with the Blues on July 1 after spending the last two years with the Nashville Predators. "When (head coach) Andy Murray took over the team last year, in my opinion, they were a playoff team. And with the young group of players, you knew that they not only were going to be a good team now but two or three years down the road, they were going to be even better."
While St. Louis was one of the best teams in the NHL during the second half of last season, Kariya has played an integral role in their most recent success. The 13-year NHL veteran from Vancouver still possesses that blend of speed, playmaking ability and savvy that has made him one of the most dynamic and productive players of his generation.
Although Kariya was held off the scoresheet Thursday as the Blues fell 3-0 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, his skills have had an immediate impact on the St. Louis offence. Playing on the top line with centre Keith Tkachuk and right-winger Brad Boyes, Kariya has two goals and nine assists in eight games.
"Our team's played really well to start off," Kariya said of the Blues, 5-3-0. "That's important as a group top get off to a good start.
"And our line's played well. We've developed some chemistry very quickly. Sometimes it takes a little while and sometimes it happens soon."
Murray isn't surprised that Kariya has adapted so fast. The coach has known him for years and says that Kariya has always been a player that pays attention to the details of preparation.
"Paul, as any young player should when he first came into the league, did a lot of listening," Murray says. "He's still a very attentive listener. I know when I talk by the black board, I can feel his eyes going right through me. He's staring right at me and listening to everything I say.
"Because of his credibility and his experience, he has the opportunity to express himself, too. When he speaks, people listen."
Blues' players like Tkachuk and Doug Weight, both of whom have spent years facing off against Kariya in the Western Conference, are excited about what he has brought to a St. Louis team determined to return to prominence.
"He's got a lot of assets," says Weight. "His speed, his power-play ability, his professionalism. He's there every game and very well prepared. He's made us a better team and that's why we went out and got him."
Kariya is enjoying having the chance to play with Tkachuk and Weight instead of against them.
"I've played with both of them in all-star games before," he said. "They're both incredible hockey players but away from the rink, they're great people, too. It's a lot of fun to play with them and hang out with them on the road."
Murray says that Kariya was the franchise's main target in the off-season. The coach was hopeful he would end up signing but had some nervous moments late on that July 1 evening.
"We were sitting with bated breath all day," Murray says. "He was flying from Vancouver to L.A. and his flight was late, so we were calling and checking on the flights because we knew we were going to get the answer when he landed. There was a pretty good celebration in the war room in St. Louis when we got a hold of him at 10 at night.
"We were hopeful and pleased."