Commentary

What can Blues expect from Kariya?

Updated: October 2, 2009, 12:25 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

STOCKHOLM -- St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray has made a point during training camp of describing how good the Blues played last season without Paul Kariya.

Now, the question Kariya, Murray and the rest of the Blues are waiting to have answered is just how good they can be with the skilled winger back after missing almost all of last season to injury.

There was a time in the mid-to-late 1990s when you could scarcely have a conversation about the game's elite players without referencing Kariya. Twice eclipsing 100 points, three times a 40-plus goal scorer and once a 50-goal scorer, Kariya had an ability to handle the puck and create offense that was nothing short of magical.

Now, at 34, there are ample signs that the magic remains and he can be the kind of difference-maker the Blues will need to take another step forward after storming into the playoffs last season despite injuries to key players, including Kariya.

The Vancouver native had already collected 15 points in 11 games last season before being hit awkwardly in that 11th game.

"My lower body was going one way and my upper body was going the other way, and I felt a pop in my hip/quad area," Kariya told ESPN.com. "I didn't really think anything of it."

At the time, he was playing with a cracked boned in his foot and decided to take some time off to give that a chance to heal. But a week later, he was still having trouble walking and pushing off on the ice.

"I had basically zero strength in my hip in my left side," he said.

An MRI revealed that 90 percent of his quad muscles had torn away from the hip bone. There were tears in the labrum and bone spurs. Three or four weeks later, Kariya saw no improvement and doctors told him he needed to have hip surgery.

"Well, it's a shock at first," said Kariya, who had been remarkably durable during his NHL career, playing all 82 games in five of the previous six seasons. "When the doctor says you're looking at a hip replacement if you don't have it done, then it kind of wakes you up. I didn't have a choice.

"I couldn't play novice hockey, let alone an NHL game."

And so, his season was over before it got started.

After working hard in the offseason a year ago to try to improve on a disappointing 65-point campaign in 2007-08, his first in St. Louis, Kariya underwent two separate operations to correct the problem.

"That was the first major surgery I've had. So it was a tough rehab," he said.

By the time St. Louis had climbed back into the playoff picture, Kariya was pushing to return for the playoffs. The Blues were swept by Vancouver and Kariya said there was a chance he could have played in a fifth game had the Blues extended the series.

"If we were going to play Game 5, I was going to play," he said. "I don't know how smart that would have been looking back on it, where I was."

This past summer, Kariya committed himself once again to returning to camp in top shape, and the early returns have been positive.

"I feel good. My hip feels fantastic. I had a little bit of a groin issue at the start of camp," he said. "It's like having new legs."

Murray described Kariya as the "bionic man."

"He's got two new legs and it probably added three years to his career," Murray said. "He's over a point a game in every preseason game, which is where he was last year when he got hurt. He's in great condition. He's got a hunger to play. We're excited to have him."

So, what can the Blues expect from Kariya?

The team is deep up front, so he doesn't need to carry them in the way he might have earlier in his career in Anaheim or as recently as the first two years after the lockout when he signed with the Nashville Predators. In those two seasons, Kariya averaged a hair more than 80 points. If he's put his health issues behind him, there seems to be nothing to stop him from reaching those kinds of totals again.

"We need Paul challenging to be our best player is what we need Paul to be, and so I don't think that role has changed for him," Murray said. "He's an elite player and we need him to be playing at an elite level. I don't think Paul has to prove himself. I just think he has to play at the level he can play at and that'll be a big addition to our team."

Kariya figured he will continue to feel better as the season moves along, and while he said he's never been one to set statistical goals for himself, he has high expectations.

"I've never been a guy who's said I want to score this many points or score this many goals, so I don't look at it like that," he said. "But I still feel I can contribute at the highest level."

If there was one part of missing last year that was especially disappointing to Kariya, it was the missed opportunity to play himself back onto the Canadian Olympic radar. He missed the Olympic tournament in 1998, the first year NHLers went to the Olympics after a Gary Suter cross-check to the jaw shortly before the tournament left him injured. He was a key contributor to the Canadian gold-medal effort in Salt Lake City in 2002 and would love nothing more than to play in his hometown in February.

He points to his start last season, 15 points in 11 games, "and obviously that was with some serious damage in my hips, so I know I still have the ability to produce offensively, and obviously the Olympics would be something that I would love to do. If I'm playing well enough to get back on the radar that would be fantastic."

Perhaps it's fate the Blues will open the regular season here in Stockholm against Detroit, whose coach, Mike Babcock, is also the bench boss of the Canadian Olympic team. Not that Babcock needs any introduction to Kariya, having coached him in Anaheim when the Ducks unexpectedly went to the 2003 Stanley Cup finals.

"He's a great player, works hard, a real professional," Babcock said. "He's internal. He leads by example and by professionalism and through his preparation. He's a good man. Very intelligent, great passer, got a great backhand shot. Plays the game hard and was fun to coach."

If Kariya has his way, Babcock will get the chance to coach him again.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.