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.

Pre-game reading: ‘Trying to keep playing at such a high level, it was going to kill me’

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The Pioneer Press caught up with former Minnesota Wild goalie Josh Harding, who quietly retired from professional hockey two-and-a-half years ago. That decision came after Harding was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and made a stirring comeback with the Wild, capturing the 2013 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy as a result.

In the piece, Harding talks about his final game, one in which he left an AHL game against Charlotte in an ambulance due to severe dehydration. That proved an eye-opener, one that all but cemented the need for him to hang up his skates.

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Sara Harding took one look at her gaunt husband on FaceTime [following the game in Charlotte] and immediately bought a one-way plane ticket from Minneapolis, not knowing when she would return — or if she would be coming back alone.

“She was really scared,” Harding recalled Tuesday. “That was the final dagger. It started hitting me that I still have a family and life to live here. People that I love and that love me, I saw how scared they were and how much it affected them. I knew it was time to put up the pads.

 “The doctors all told me if I kept doing this to my body, trying to keep playing at such a high level, it was going to kill me.”

Harding, who has attended a few Wild games since retirement, is currently working as a goalie coach at a local Minnesota high school.

— “I think there’s only three teams left in the NHL that don’t have a downtown arena, and we’re one of them and it’s tragic that we don’t. I bought the team out of bankruptcy and that’s where the arena was, and that’s what I bought. But we need to move things downtown, if it’s Ottawa it’s got to be downtown.”

That’s Sens owner Eugene Melnyk (per the Citizen) talking about Ottawa’s proposed new arena. He’s hopeful negotiations with the National Capital Commission on the development of Lebreton Flats will be completed before the end of the year, at which point construction can begin on what he promises will be a “gorgeous” complex.

— The latest development in the U.S. women’s looming boycott of the 2017 World Hockey Championships: USA Hockey has postponed a pre-tourney training camp, and an exhibition game against Finland. The organization is still hopeful it can hold a camp just prior to the start of the worlds, which will begin on Mar. 31 in Plymouth, MI. (Yahoo)

Goalie nods: Raanta goes back-to-back in Battle of New York

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Another chapter in one of the league’s most storied rivalries will be written tonight, when the Isles take on the Rangers at MSG.

And in goal, it’ll be Thomas Greiss against Antti Raanta.

Raanta, the goalie of record in seven of the Rangers’ last eight games, gets the call even though Henrik Lundqvist is reportedly healthy enough to return from his hip injury. Lundqvist is expected to resume playing on the club’s upcoming three-game California swing through Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose.

So that means tonight’s game falls to Raanta, who continues to put up solid numbers. He’s now at 15-7-2 on the year with a 2.32 GAA and .920 save percentage, and has allowed three goals or fewer in each of his last five appearances. That includes last night’s 3-2 OT loss to the Devils, in which he made 26 saves.

Greiss, meanwhile, is coming off a very good performance in Saturday’s 3-2 OT loss to the Jackets. He stopped 35 of 38 shots for a .921 save percentage, and knows he’ll need to be as good — or better — as the Isles are in desperate need of points.

The Isles head into tonight’s action three points back of the Maple Leafs for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

Elsewhere…

— Toronto won’t start former Blue Jacket Curtis McElhinney tonight, when it visits Columbus. Instead, head coach Mike Babcock will continue to roll with the red-hot Frederik Andersen, who’s coming off a 33-save win against Boston on Monday. For the Jackets, Joonas Korpisalo looks to be in goal.

Jonathan Bernier continues to pile up the starts in Anaheim, with John Gibson still nursing his lower-body injury. Bernier will get the call when the Ducks host the Oilers tonight. And guess who’s in for Edmonton? If you guessed anybody other than Cam Talbot, you haven’t been reading this column often enough.

KHLer gets eight-game suspension after attacking Talbot, Kozun

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A recent playoff game in the KHL between Yaroslavl Lokomotiv and CSKA (Lokomotiv won the game and the series) featured a little bit of chaos because of the actions of CSKA defenseman Grigory Panin.

Late in the second period Panin briefly lost his cool when he delivered a devastating hit to the head of former NHL player Max Talbot, injuring him and igniting a scrum that resulted in Panin slashing former Toronto Maple Leafs forward Brandon Kozun in the head.

As you can see in the video above, Kozun was in pretty bad shape after the incident and needed a lot of assistance just to get off the ice. Talbot was also injured as a result of the hit from Panin.

Panin received five-minute major penalties for both hits, as well as 20-minute misconduct penalties for a grand total of 50 penalty minutes.

This all happened just a few minutes after a Talbot goal gave Lokomotiv a 2-0 lead, scoring a goal that would ultimately decide the game and the series.

On Tuesday, the KHL announced that Panin has been suspended eight game for his actions. That suspension includes an automatic one-game suspension for being a repeat offender (this was not his first ejection this season) and another automatic one-game suspension for receiving two 20-minute misconduct penalties in the same game. The hit on Talbot also resulted in a two-game suspension while the incident with Kozun resulted in a four-game suspension.

Kozun and Panin do have a bit of a history with one another in the KHL. Last year Kozun was ejected from a game for injuring Panin on a hit from behind.

It’s also not the first time Panin has done something outrageous to warrant a suspension in the KHL. Along with a suspension earlier this season, he was also suspended twice back in 2013, including an 11-game suspension for an outrageously dirty hit on former NHL player Matt Murley.

Kozun played 20 games in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 2014-15 season, scoring two goals to go with two assists. He was one of the top scorers in the KHL this season with 56 points in 59 games.

Talbot spent 11 years in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Colorado Avalanche and Boston Bruins.

Columbus started extension talks with key youngsters Wennberg, Anderson

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Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen was a busy man on Tuesday, signing three players — center Lukas Sedlak, left winger Markus Hannikainen and blueliner Scott Harrington — to two-year extensions.

Kekalainen’s also working on some more significant deals as well.

Per the Dispatch, he’s begun preliminary extension talks with three Columbus’ brightest young players — forwards Josh Anderson and Alex Wennberg, and goalie Joonas Korpisalo — all of whom are pending restricted free agents.

Though talks will reportedly be sidelined as the team focuses on its playoff run, Kekalainen insisted all three deals would get done.

“They’re all restricted,” he said. “And they’re all going to be re-signed.”

Of the three, Wennberg and Anderson have made the biggest impact this season.

Wennberg, 22, has done a terrific job filling the hole left at center from the Ryan JohansenSeth Jones trade. The 14th overall pick in ’13 leads the team in assists this year, with 42, and sits second in scoring with 54 points.

“He’s been probably one of our best play-makers,” Tortorella said of Wenneberg, per NHL.com. “When you talk play-makers, everyone thinks offense, but coming out of our end zone, too, he makes plays. He’s not an off-the-glass guy. He wants to try to make a play so we keep possession. For such a young man, I just love his poise, and that’s what you need. You can’t be afraid to make a play and he has shown that.”

Anderson, also 22, has made a major impact in his first fulls season with the Jackets. He’s found the back of the net 16 times — more than Henrik Zetterberg, Nathan MacKinnon, Claude Giroux, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf — and has been a physical presence, sitting third on the team with 119 hits.

Korpisalo’s had a smaller role this season, though that has to do with the heavy workload shouldered by No. 1 netminder Sergei Bobrovsky (and the fact now-Maple Leaf Curtis McElhinney spent time as the backup). But the organization is high on Korpisalo who, at 22, projects to be a potential goalie of the future.

It’s fair to suggest Wennberg will get the biggest raise this summer. The question will be if the club tries to sign him to a bridge deal, like it did with Boone Jenner, or negotiate a long-term deal, like it did with Jones.

Kekalainen also has a few UFAs to make decisions on, with the most interesting being Sam Gagner. Signed on the cheap last summer — one year, $650,000 — he’s done an excellent job of reviving his career, notching 18 goals and 44 points through 70 games.