Thursday, May 12, 2016

Just like his father ... Paul Stastny has the gift for passing the puck

By Larry Wigge

There's a big gap-toothed smile on Paul Stastny's face.

That is the reason why the St. Louis Blues signed Stastny to a four-year, $28 million contract free-agent contract in July of 2114. Heck ... that is the reason he was born to play in the NHL.

When the Blues clinched Game 7, 6-1, against Dallas May 11, Stastny forced a pass through two Stars defenders to Troy Brouwer in the slot. The rebound came out to Robby Fabbri, who took a backhanded whack at the puck in the goal crease before backhanding it into the net. Later in the first period, it was Brouwer feeding Stastny and short pass, which his lifted into the net. In the second period, Brouwer completed the hat trick as he took passed by Stastny and Fabbri while on the rush. When the Blues clinched Game 7 of the Chicago playoff series, it was Stastny's pass that started the winning goal scored by Troy Brouwer 8:31 of the third period of a 3-2 victory.

"There's feelings when you go into Game 7, where you're facing an elimination game and sometimes you just don't feel like you're going to move on," explained Stastny. "The way that we feel here, we know we've got a good team and we know every time a challenge has come our way, we've kind of risen up to it. Good team effort, everyone bounced back from last game."

Born to play in the NHL? Peter Stastny started it with his brother Anton and Marian came over from Slovakia to play for the Quebec Nordiques in the 1980s. They were dominant with their cross-crossing-throw-the-puck-around-the-offensive-zone magic.

That's where the genes ... or the DNA work for Paul Stastny.

"I can't explain it," Paul said. "When I'm on the ice, I can see two or three options where other players might only see one. I know I've got some genes for things that can't be taught. I get that from my dad and my uncles, the vision for things you see in your head.

"But I've always loved the game growing up, I've always been a student of it, learning that way, or watching the guys I've played with."

Paul Stastny was born in Quebec City.

"My first memory of hockey and Quebec City was when I was about five and I was playing a lot on this pond near our house," Paul recalls. "My brother (Yan), my dad and my uncles. They were so good. Great skaters. They made the puck dance like it was on a string the way they passed it around."

The string-like passing skill now belongs to Paul.

"His dad scored a lot of goals on me," said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville. "Paul has that same drive and creative mind like Peter had. He is terrific with the puck ... it seems to follow him around. Down low, he's got great vision and an innate ability to find a teammate for a great scoring chance."

In his second season with the Blues, the 6-0, 205-pound scored 10 goals and 39 assists in 64 games. He has three goals and six assists in 14 playoff games.

With that vision and those hands. Those marvelous skills are a unique throwback to the days when the name Stastny was on the lips of every coach, player of the NHL. And now those same talents are back ... and they are just as welcome in this new era.

Paul Stastny was a second round, 44th overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. He was at the University of Denver after two years of playing for the River City Lancers of the United States Hockey League.

"Those pretty little short passes of Paul's," said Brouwer, who has combined with Stastny and Fabbri for most of the second half of this season. "The three of us got together before (Game 7) and said, "We're going to make a difference tonight.' "

Stastny, Brouwer and Fabbri are the first players in Blues history to record three points in a Game 7.

Peter and Darina Stastny are based in Bratislava, the Stastny's hometown and the capital of the reborn Slovakia. Peter also represents Slovakia in the European Parliament and has overseen the Slovakian national teams at the World Cup and Olympics.

Early in his coaching tenure in St. Louis, Joel Quenneville was skating in an informal session with the Blues alumni, who sometimes brought their sons along with them. Much to Quenneville's consternation, there was this pesky pain-in-the-posterior kid on the ice who refused to respect his elders.

"I wondered, 'Who is the little guy who keeps taking the puck away from me?'" Quenneville recalls. "I couldn't get it back."

He was told it was Paul Stastny.

"He comes from a system where creativity and making plays is kind of their No. 1 goal and here the No. 1 goal is structure and defense,” Washington right winger T.J. Oshie said. "We don’t have a lot of leeway, except for one or two guys, to use our creativity. He’s a creative player. That's why it's so fun to play with him. That's not something we get a lot of room to do."

Paul Stastny's phone rings most every non-gameday afternoon, his father calling to converse about family, European politics and mostly about hockey, all in Slovak. Well ... it, after 10 years in the NHL, three or four times a week.

"He's built like his dad, he's got the same strong hands and ability to find a player with a pass through the tiniest opening," Colorado GM Joe Sakic told me a few years back -- exhibiting minor flashback symptoms from his days breaking into the NHL in Quebec with the Nordiques. "Paul is such a smart player, he's always in the right place. The sky's the limit for him.

"And the resemblance in style of play to Peter is eery."

Peter never forced his boys into the game.

"When they told me they wanted to play I helped teach them as much as I could about the game," Peter told me. "I taught them to respect the game first and then to work as hard as they could to succeed."

"I really look up to my Dad," Paul said. "I listen when he critiques me. I'm fortunate that my dad was a Hall of Famer. One might think there could be pressure at times, but there's not."

Paul said that's no coincidence. He watched his dad coaching him and his brother. He always tried to copy all the same moves, the same style.

"It’s really something when I watch Paul," Peter said recently, when he was in St. Louis watching Paul play. "It's like a flashback. I watch him ... and I see myself."

Paul Stastny was a 9-year-old boy watching on television in his West Orange (when he was with New Jersey) home, too young to understand the significance of what his father was doing thousands of miles away at the Olympics.

But he and his older brother, Yan, could see his father on the screen, marching into the stadium with a white, blue and red flag. And they could see the tears on his cheeks, too, so they knew this was important.

Peter Stastny was carrying the flag for Slovakia, a nation that had gained its independence less than two years earlier. This was in Lillehammer in 1994, and the former Devils center was an easy choice to represent his country in its biggest moment.

"I know how special that was for him," Paul said. "That's one of his greatest achievements and one of the most humbling things he's ever done. He’s always proud of his history."

In 2009, Paul was game in Sochi had an added significance for Paul Stastny. He scored twice for his country's team -- Team USA -- as the Americans took an easy 7-1 victory over Slovakia in its first Olympic game.

His father was watching from the crowd at Shayba Arena, too, and his son wondered where his rooting interests might lie. "Were playing Slovakia, so USA all the way," the Hall of Famer had said.

Paul knew his father was proud of him. Just like he is today.

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