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.

Columbus giving prized rookie Werenski ‘every opportunity to run the power play’

2015 NHL Draft - Portraits
Getty
1 Comment

The Blue Jackets aren’t easing Zach Werenski into his freshman campaign.

Werenski, the highly touted blueline prospect, has been tasked with running the Columbus power play during the exhibition campaign — often as the lone defenseman with four forwards — and it looks like a role he might reprise throughout the regular season.

Even though he’s yet to play an NHL game.

“I want to give him every opportunity to run the power play,” head coach John Tortorella said after an OT win over Nashville, per the Blue Jackets website. “He certainly did a good job of that tonight. We’ll keep on giving him opportunities and we’ll see where we go.”

More: Looking to make the leap: Zach Werenski

The Werenski hype train has been full steam for just over a year now. The eighth overall pick in 2015, Werenski spent two highly decorated years at the University of Michigan before turning pro at the end of last season.

Dispatched to Columbus’ AHL affiliate in Lake Erie, the 19-year-old had a fantastic professional debut. He was a major catalyst on the Monsters’ defense, scoring 14 points in 17 playoff games en route to the Calder Cup championship.

“The skill set he has — his size, strength and poise with the puck, he’s a complete player,” said Monsters coach Jared Bednar (now the head coach in Colorado). “To be able to step into our lineup in intense games and get the job done, it’s impressive especially for his age and that’s why everyone’s so excited about him.”

All signs point to a very talented — and young — Columbus defense this year. It was already assumed 21-year-old Seth Jones and 23-year-old Ryan Murray were going to play major roles, and now it sounds like Werenski will be leaned on just as heavily.

Which means it’ll be interesting to see what happens to the vets.

Jack Johnson averaged over 24 minutes per game last year, a figure that will undoubtedly decrease. It’ll also be curious to see what happens to David Savard, who was playing more than 23 minutes a night — do remember that, at the start of last season, the Jackets gave Savard a hefty five-year, $21.25 million extension.

The playoff race in the West could be ‘tighter than ever’

ST. LOUIS, MO - MAY 9:  Goalie Kari Lehtonen #32 of the Dallas Stars makes a save against Kyle Brodziak #28 of the St. Louis Blues in Game Six of the Western Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Scottrade Center on May 9, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Getty
1 Comment

The NHL’s Western Conference should be wild all season, perhaps as much as ever as parity reigns and points are tough to come by on any given night.

A slew of teams have a shot at advancing to the Stanley Cup finals.

The defending Conference champion San Jose Sharks, who had five players in the World Cup of Hockey finals , certainly appear to have a chance to be among the final two still skating in mid-June. That alone would be a feat because no team from the conference has pulled it off since the Detroit Red Wings, now an Eastern Conference team, won the Stanley Cup in 2008 and came within a win of repeating.

Chicago, Los Angeles, Anaheim and St. Louis will likely be among the contenders. Dallas, too.

The Blackhawks and Kings, who alternated as champions from 2012 to 2015 and won five Cups in a six-season span, failed to even make it out of the first round last in 2016.

Both teams certainly have a chance to bounce back this season.

“This is my sixth season in the Central Division and this looks like the most challenging year yet,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Thursday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “The crunching between the top and bottom started last year, and it’s going to be closer this year.”

Hitchcock and Stars general manager Jim Nill both believe the teams that were at the bottom of the conference last season on moving up.

“The Winnipegs and the Colorados are going to be better teams,” Nill told the AP. “I think it’s going to be tighter than ever.”

How tight?

“Everyone has a shot,” San Jose’s Logan Couture said.

 

Related: There’s only one ‘vision’ in Vancouver this season, and that’s winning

 

Tough blow for Blues: Schwartz out ‘at least four weeks’ with elbow injury

ST. LOUIS, MO - FEBRUARY 23: Jaden Schwartz #9 of the St. Louis Blues shoots the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Scottrade Center on February 23, 2013 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Getty
Leave a comment

The St. Louis Blues will have to start the season without one of their most dangerous forwards, Jaden Schwartz.

Schwartz “will miss at least four weeks after injuring his left elbow during a training camp practice on Sept. 29,” the club announced today.

It’s another frustration for the 25-year-old winger. Schwartz was limited to just 33 games last season, after fracturing his ankle in October.

As for this latest injury, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock originally predicted that Schwartz would only need a “couple of days off.”

St. Louis opens its regular season Oct. 12 in Chicago. If Schwartz is out until the end of October, he’ll miss nine games.

Related: Schwartz signs five-year extension

More bad news in Dallas: Janmark (knee surgery) out 5-6 months

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 22: Mattias Janmark #13 of the Dallas Stars looks on against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on October 22, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
1 Comment

Earlier this week, we passed along word that Stars forward Mattias Janmark was spotted on crutches at the team’s practice facility.

Now we know why.

Janmark suffered a knee injury that requires surgery, GM Jim Nill said on Thursday. The procedure is expected to sideline the Swedish forward for 5-6 months, putting his return in the neighborhood of February-March of next year.

It’s a big blow for the Stars.

After surprising onlookers by making the team out of camp last year — a “great story,” according to GM Jim Nill — Janmark, 23, went on to have a pretty successful rookie campaign, scoring 15 goals and 29 points in 73 games.

He also fared well in the playoffs, with five points in 12 contests.

Today’s news compounds what’s been a lousy September in Dallas. The club previously lost Tyler Seguin (heel), Cody Eakin (knee) and Ales Hemsky (groin) to injuries, and saw Russian forward Valeri Nichushkin sign in the KHL.

Looking at the schedule, Janmark projects to miss anywhere between 60-70 games this season, assuming the 5-6 month timeline is accurate. That’s a big chunk of man power to replace.