(HockeySTL)-- When Magnus Paajarvi came to the St. Louis as a part of the blockbuster deal last summer that sent David Perron to the Edmonton Oilers, he was light, quick and full of potential. But as the 2013-14 season wore on, Paajarvi was seeing more of the press box than the ice. When he was in the lineup, Paajarvi was accumulating bottom-six minutes.
A drastic change was needed for the forward to fit into the gritty St. Louis Blues lineup. Paajarvi wasn’t a hard-nosed player; he didn’t thrive on the physical aspect of the game, and in some ways, avoided it. His style of play was out of place in the Blues’ lineup, but he still possessed tools that could make him a valuable asset.
Noticing as much, head coach Ken Hitchcock approached the 23-year old midway through last season. He spoke to the forward about what he envisioned Paajarvi becoming. Without a change, Paajarvi would not fit into the Blues’ play style. He wasn’t big enough; he wasn’t strong enough. Hitchcock’s plan was to change his player’s fitness program, ultimately evolving and adding to the forward’s skill set.
“He started last year as a light, fast player,” said Hitchcock. “We changed his fitness routine halfway through the season and focused on upper-body strength.”
Many players would scoff at such an idea. After all, Paajarvi, a former first-round draft pick, had the credentials and the tools of a player with tremendous upside. But in the Blues’ system, he was ineffective. Paajarvi, knowing that he would have to buy in to the fitness plan for the long-haul, jumped onboard and dedicated himself to the workout.
“He really got our attention with what he did in the summer,” said Hitchcock. “He bought into (the fitness plan), took the program and continued it into the offseason. He’s come into camp and he is one fit, strong guy right now.”
The Blues wanted Paajarvi to focus on improving his upper-body strength, but they also wanted him to become quicker on the ice. As a result, Paajarvi put on eight pounds of muscle over the course of the five-month offseason, spiking his weight to about 210 pounds. The muscle increase also improved the forward’s speed.
“We talked at the exit meetings last season back and forth and they wanted me to win more races and be a little bit stronger,” Paajarvi said. “So, that’s what I have been doing. I’m definitely a little bit heavier.”
Up until Friday, Paajarvi had yet to test his ‘new self’ on the ice, but said after his first practice that he felt much better than he has in the past.
“I feel I am stronger, for sure, upper-body-wise,” said Paajarvi. It’s exciting.”
In his first season with the Blues, Paajarvi tallied six goals, 12 points in 55 games. It was the second-lowest point total of the forward’s four-year NHL career. Since being drafted by Edmonton 10th overall in 2009, Paajarvi has shown small bursts that indicate he could become a solid NHL player. He has accumulated as many as 34 points in a season. But the impressive stretches of play have never been sustained, which led to Edmonton gambling away Paajarvi in the trade for Perron. However, the Blues saw, and still do see something in the young forward. But they needed to figure out how to help him get to the next level.
“I felt like I needed to put on muscle and if I could do that, I felt like I would be faster,” Paajarvi said. “I feel stronger and that’s definitely good.
“You are always looking for the next step to develop and be better and this was definitely the next step for me. “I have been doing (the workouts) this summer and now it is just putting it from off-ice to on-ice.”
One thing that helped Paajarvi manage his fitness program this offseason was familiarity. When he first came over to the Blues, the young forward was acclimated with the Oilers’ fitness programs. Before he had the dialogue with Hitchcock and the coaching staff last season, Paajarvi had never fully adjusted to the Blues’ programs.
“I put some extra upper-body programs on,” said Paajarvi. “Obviously, I worked on St. Louis Blues’ programs a little bit. Before, it has always been the other teams’, so now I’m fully on the Blues’. I feel way more comfortable coming in.”
Despite being in great shape, Paajarvi knows he will have to battle to pull it all together and make it fit on the ice. He is aware that he is not a lock for the Blues’ roster, but he also knows that this is the case anywhere in the league. Only, with the Blues, the rewards may be greater.
“They’re one of the deepest teams in the league, for sure,” Paajarvi said. “But there is always going to be competition whether it is here or (elsewhere). That’s how I see it and you to perform to stay. You have to do what you are meant to do and do your role as best you can. You can’t really focus on 57 other guys. That’s not how I work, at least. I focus on myself and hopefully the rest will take care of itself.”
The changes, not lost on Hitchcock and the rest of the coaching staff, have given both parties optimism about the future.
“He’s exactly what we need,” said Hitchcock. “He’s going to have to fight for ice time, he’s going to have to fight for a spot, but man he has done a job to get ready to be a big, strong forechecking player.
“He’s done everything we have asked of him and he’s ready to go.”