Alex Pietrangelo, Lars Eller

Alex Pietrangelo evolving into a top pairing defenseman

Tonight’s game between the St. Louis Blues and Phoenix Coyotes may not mean much for the Blues. Most fans in St. Louis kissed the playoffs goodbye a week or two ago as they currently sit in 13th place with 73 points. In the short-term, these games may not mean much—but in the long-term, these are the games where the franchise will build its new foundation. The well-publicized trade between the Avalanche and Blues signified a change in direction for the organization when they sent former #1 overall pick Erik Johnson to the Rockies. In a few years though, the biggest part of the trade may not be the players who were involved, but a player who was given the opportunity to blossom into a cornerstone defensemen in his own right: Alex Pietrangelo.

One of the main reasons the Blues were able to part with a player of Johnson’s potential and stature is because of the way they felt about Pietrangelo. Since drafting him with the fourth overall pick in 2008, he’s been groomed slowly in the OHL to make sure he was able to fully reach his potential once he became an everyday player in the NHL. He tore up the OHL with both Niagara and Barrie, he dominated the World Junior Championships last year, and finally was given the chance to permanently stick with St. Louis this season. Needless to say, he’s made the most of his opportunity.

This season he’s already collected 10 goals and 29 assists for 39 points in 69 games. To add to those boxcar numbers, he’s chipped in four goals on the power play and he’s notched an impressive +15 rating. He was playing well enough that as the deadline neared, the Blues felt comfortable enough to send both Eric Brewer and Erik Johnson packing—in essence handing the keys over to Pietrangelo.

Since the two trades in February, he’s been on the top defensive pairing with Carlo Colaiacovo. Only Eric Brewer (22:14) and Erik Johnson (22:07) were averaging more time than him before the moves. He was averaging 21:46 over the season, but his average ice-time has been bumped up to 24:15 since the trade. Over the course of the season, he’s been playing almost three minutes per game on the power play and two minutes on the penalty kill. Now, he’s seeing even more time on both the power play and the penalty kill; he’s posted 8 points (4 goals, 4 assists) in 15 games since the February 19th trade with a +1 rating against the oppositions’ best lines. He’d certainly be on the shortlist for the Calder Trophy if it weren’t for the obscure rules governing the rookie of the year.

He’s giving the Blues exactly what GM Doug Armstrong hoped he would:

“He’s played well enough now to be one of our primary, top-four (defensemen). He’s going to be a leader for us the rest of this year, and then it’s going to be a very important summer for him. It’s going to be very important for him to stay focused, but he seems to have the mindset and professionalism to not take a step back — and also take a step forward.”

 

The fact that Pietrangelo is thriving now that he’s been given a chance to shine shouldn’t surprise many hockey fans. In St. Louis, he’s been compared to Erik Johnson all season (and since the day he was drafted). But before he heard his name called by the Blues, he’s been compared to guys like Drew Doughty, Tyler Myers, and Zach Bogosian that were also selected in the 1st round in 2008. Not bad company to keep.

In addition to the Pietrangelo, the Blues have had one of the best prospect systems over the last five years. But for all the strength they have in their pipeline, their greatest asset has been the volume and quality of prospects they have on the backend. Ian Cole, Nikita Nikitin, Pietrangelo, and now the newly acquired Kevin Shattenkirk have the potential to be a great defensive core for years to come. They were able to parlay that organizational strength into a package that was able to fill a need today—and will fill the need for years to comewith Chris Stewart.

Blues’ president John Davidson’s comments were telling:

“When you get into that position, you go, ‘Is there somebody out there we can get and really enhance a different need on our club, knowing that we can get something without killing us back there? You look at needs, and we need a power forward and scoring. We’ll see where it goes. There are no guarantees.”

It’s interesting that he’d say they could trade a former #1 overall pick and it wouldn’t kill them back there. He was quick to point out that the trade was not an indictment on anyone, which leads us to believe they’re excited about the young players they have coming up on the blueline.

After the trade deadline, headlines will always explain how new players are playing a huge role for their new teams. But just as often, someone will need to step up and fill a void when a big name player is shipped out of town. It was the trust in Pietrangelo that allowed the Blues to make this kind of splash. Assuming he’s able to continue to develop into the player the organization projects him to be, Pietrangelo will reward St. Louis with the cornerstone defenseman they’ve wanted for the next decade.

Deadline target Streit says ‘it’s too early’ for extension talks in Philly

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 09:  Mark Streit #32 of the Philadelphia Flyers completes a pass against the Carolina Hurricanes on April 9, 2015 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
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Yesterday, we touched on the dynamic at play between Buffalo and veteran captain Brian Gionta.

Today, a similar situation to discuss — but it’s in Philly, and involves alternate captain Mark Streit.

Streit, 39, is in the last of a four-year, $21 million deal with a $5.25M cap hit. Like Gionta, he’s a pending UFA and — also like Gionta — has a limited no-trade clause (Streit can list 10 teams he’d accept a trade to.)

Like the Sabres, the Flyers are in a tricky spot.

Right on the wild card bubble, they’re cognizant that a veteran presence like Streit — who has 17 points in 35 games, averaging 19:43 per night — would be valuable come playoff time.

But if Philly falls out of playoff contention, Streit would undoubtedly be an asset worth flipping at the deadline. It’s something the team is surely aware of.

The Swiss rearguard has more than 30 games of playoff experience and, as we’ve seen at previous deadlines, the return for rental defensemen can be high.

More on this situation, from the Burlington County Times:

So if the Flyers were to keep him past the deadline and offer him a new contract, would he be willing to stay?

“At this point, I just want to play and I want to make it into the playoffs with the Flyers,’’ the Swiss native said. “That’s on my mind. I love it here, love playing for the Flyers.”

The subject of a new contract is tricky because the Flyers are currently right on the bubble for a playoff spot.

There’s really no point in opening contract negotiations if he’s only going to be here another five weeks, is there?

“Not yet, it’s too early,’’ Streit said. “I’d like to stay here. I’ve been part of this organization for four years now. I love the guys, I believe in the group.”

Flyers GM Ron Hextall told the Times he hasn’t made any decisions on his UFAs, adding he’s in no rush to sign them.

There’s actually quite a lot of business for Hextall on that front — in addition to Streit, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Michael Del Zotto, Nick Schultz, Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth are all up on July 1 — so it’s not surprising he’s taking a wait-and-see approach.

As for Streit, he said he’d like to stick in Philly beyond this year… and, per the Times, even joked with reporters that he’d love to sign another four-year deal.

We assume he was joking, anyway.

Sens nab Wingels in trade with Sharks

SAN JOSE, CA - NOVEMBER 25:  Tommy Wingels #57 of the San Jose Sharks looks to pass the puck while covered by Artem Anisimov #15 of the Chicago Blackhawks at SAP Center on November 25, 2015 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The Ottawa Senators have acquired forward Tommy Wingels from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for two AHL forwards, Buddy Robinson and Zack Stortini, and a 2017 seventh-round draft pick.

The Sens announced the trade via Twitter. As part of the deal, the Sharks will retain 30 percent of Wingels’ $2.6 million salary this season. The 28-year-old is a pending unrestricted free agent. His total cap hit is $2.475 million.

Wingels has just five goals and three assists in 37 games this season, and his average ice time under head coach Pete DeBoer had fallen from 13:38 last season to just 10:03.

Perhaps he’ll find a bigger role now under Guy Boucher. Wingels is expected to join the Sens tomorrow in Ottawa.

In a press release, Sharks GM Doug Wilson called Wingels “a valuable member of our franchise for many years, a phenomenal teammate and a true role model on and off the ice for our organization and the NHL.”

Wilson added, “As a team evolves and younger players push for roster spots, unfortunately tough decisions have to be made. We wish Tommy and his wife, Molly, nothing but success in the future.

“We also want to welcome Buddy and Zach to our organization. They add size and depth to our reserve list and we look forward to having them in San Jose.”

It’s crunch time for the Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop stays on the ice after giving up a goal to Arizona Coyotes defenseman Michael Stone during the second period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
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The Tampa Bay Lightning are desperate for wins.

How desperate?

Well, it’s estimated they’ll have to win around 21 of their final 34 games in order to make the playoffs.

So, pretty darn desperate.

It is shocking, frankly, that the Lightning have found themselves in this position. After 48 games, they sit dead last in the Eastern Conference with a record of 21-22-5. Even without Steven Stamkos, most observers thought they’d hang in there.

But if it’s not one thing (allowing too many goals), it’s been another (not scoring enough) for Jon Cooper’s bunch. Heading into tonight’s game in Chicago, the Bolts have just two wins in their last 10 games.

Saturday’s 5-3 loss to the Coyotes, one of the NHL’s worst teams, was a low point.

“Disappointing is probably not even the right word,” veteran forward Brian Boyle said, per the Tampa Bay Times. “We’ve got to do a better job in (the room), I guess, especially the veteran guys. It’s got to be way better from the start, maybe in preparation? Obviously, our focus wasn’t where it needed to be. That’s a hard one to swallow.”

The Lightning outshot the Coyotes by a big margin, 48-23, but for the 13th time this season they lost a game in regulation despite finishing ahead on the shot clock. Only Carolina (17) and Boston (15) have lost more games that way. 

In a related story, Ben Bishop‘s save percentage has fallen from .926 last season, when he was a Vezina Trophy finalist, to .905. He was pulled Saturday after allowing five goals on just 17 shots.

To be fair, Bishop had played well in his three previous starts since returning from an injury. But Saturday was a bad time to have a bad game. Those were two points the Lightning really needed, and they didn’t even get one.

Tampa Bay has two games before the All-Star break — tonight in Chicago and Thursday at the Panthers in Sunrise.

That game Thursday will be huge for both teams, each of which went into the season with high hopes, before injuries and other frustrations arose.

The reality now is that both Florida clubs are likely to miss the playoffs. Yes, there’s still time to climb out of their respective holes, but the odds say they’ll probably fail.

Sabres welcome back oft-injured Kulikov, who has missed 26 games

CALGARY, AB - OCTOBER 18: Dmitry Kulikov #77 of the Buffalo Sabres in action against the Calgary Flames during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on October 18, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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Dmitry Kulikov‘s first year in Buffalo has largely been defined by his lingering back injury, but he’ll set about changing that narrative when he returns to the lineup tonight in Nashville.

Today, Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma confirmed Kulikov would play for the first time since Dec. 27, having missed nearly a month with his lingering ailment.

Kulikov also missed 13 games earlier in the year with the same back problem.

Acquired at last year’s draft in a deal that sent Mark Pysyk to Florida — along with picks being exchanged — Kulikov was expected to play a big role in Buffalo this season, and projected to play on the club’s top defensive pairing with Rasmus Ristolainen.

“You watch Florida when they go on the PK; he was the first guy on the ice, when they needed a goal on the playoffs he was on the ice, when they needed to protect a lead late in the game he was on the ice,” Sabres GM Tim Murray said at the time of the trade, per NHL.com. “So we certainly liked what we saw.”

All told, the 26-year-old Russian’s appeared in just 20 games this year, registering a single point. He has averaged over 22 minutes per, though — meaning head coach Dan Bylsma has used Kulikov quite a bit, when available.

Kulikov didn’t take this morning’s skate, so no clear indication on who he’ll pair with this evening.