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Chris Stewart, Hart Trophy Candidate?

Chris Stewart is taking the Avalanche, and his career, to new heights.

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The new Colorado Avalanche season took a serious blow last week when top goalie Craig Anderson was lost for an indefinite time with a knee injury. With last season's MVP on the bench, Colorado was in desperate need of another player to take charge and lead them through a time of crisis. Forward Chris Stewart has seized the moment and is finally delivering on the promise that made him a first round pick back in 2006.

Stewart has always been a great talent with an enviable combination of size and work ethic, but struggled to develop his game in the minor leagues. His standout season occured with OHL Kingston in 2006-2007, his first season after being drafted by the Avalanche. That year, Stewart tallied 82 points in 61 games, placing him 23rd in the league that season (behind future Chicago star Patrick Kane, who scored a whopping 145 points).

From the Hockey's Future initial scouting report:

Stewart is a big power forward who is a strong skater, is hard to knock off the puck and is not afraid to get physical when it is necessary (118 PIM this season). He has great hands for a big man and plays in all situations. Stewart’s size, physicality, and soft hands, combined with excellent work ethic, make him a force to be reckoned with.

While Stewart's first minor league season suggested a solid NHL career, his next year put a damper on those expectations, at least temporarily. Stewart was promoted to the AHL Lake Erie squad, where he struggled mightily, only managing 44 points for the entire season. Chris Stewart was still a promising prospect (always ranked as a top three talent within the Avalanche system), but one that was struggling to adjust to higher levels of competition.

When the 2008-2009 Avalanche were ravaged by injuries, they turned to players from their farm system out of desperation. Stewart, along with young players like Philippe Dupuis and T.J. Galiardi, were called up from Lake Erie and given a shot on the Colorado roster. Through 53 games, Chris Stewart only managed 20 points, and only 12 goals. In the second half of the next season, however, Stewart finally began to deliver on his promise. He began using his size and strength to work down low in front of the net, and the aggressiveness paid off in a big way. Starting in December 2009, Stewart began earning more ice time, progressing from 12 minutes a game to 18 minutes per game. The increase in ice time led to significantly increased production, averaging a point per game for the remainder of the season.

His success has only continued in this young 2010-2011 season, as Stewart finds himself the scoring leader of the most explosive team in the league -- the Avalanche -- and atop many NHL leaderboards as well. Chris Stewart's nine goals so far this season is only one shy of NHL leader and Chicago Blackhawk Patrick Sharp. (Sharp has accomplished the feat with two more games played and 67 minutes of ice time more than Stewart.) Stewart's 16 points is also tied for second, behind Tampa Bay sensation Steven Stamkos (again, with almost three minutes less ice time per game). In fact, Stewart is responsible for 23% of the NHL-leading 39 goals the Avalanche have scored.

There is still plenty of season left to be played, and Stewart cannot possibly continue scoring a goal on 26.5% of his shots (even Wayne Gretzky's career average was a goal on 17.6% of his shots, and goalies of his era wore smaller pads). But if Stewart continues crashing the net and working hard in the crease -- especially with linemate Paul Stastny holding down the center -- then good things will continue for the Avalanche, at least on the offensive end.

Colorado has needed him to lead the charge. With Craig Anderson injured, the Avalanche have demanded a significant bump in their scoring just to stay competitive. While they are well above league average in goals scored, they have also been one of the most porous defenses in the league, allowing 39 goals against (including four shorthanded goals). Without Stewart's early season outburst, this Colorado team would find itself in the middle of the pack instead of leading the competitive Northwest Division.

Stewart's early month successes have garnered national press, and he has been awarded one of the NHL's Three Stars of the Month, along with NHL points leader Steven Stamkos and the ageless Boston goalie Tim Thomas. With continued success, Chris Stewart may find himself in the Hart Trophy discussion throughout the year.