Alex Pietrangelo

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Celebrate Labor Day by pondering the ‘hardest working’ NHL defensemen

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It’s Labor Day (or Labour Day), so hopefully you’re getting those last summer nights/hot dog grillings out of your system.

(Not just talking to you, Phil Kessel.)

With the holiday in mind, it seems sensible to get into the theme of things and ponder the “hardest working” players in hockey. For the record, these lists are based on stats, so feel free to project your own opinions about hustle/grit/other things that would show up on a John Cena t-shirt.

If nothing else, it’s refreshing to discuss some stats that don’t get as much attention.

Defensemen tend to be some of the biggest workhorses in the sport, so this first post will be devoted to them.

For forwards and goalies, check out this post.

Sheer volume

In maybe the least surprising development imaginable, Ryan Suter continues to stand out as a guy who just logs an inane amount of ice time.

Suter headlines a list of five players who’ve logged at least 8,000 minutes of regular-season ice time from 2013-14 through 2016-17.

1. Suter: 9,201:55
2. Drew Doughty: 8,906:33
3. Erik Karlsson: 8,897:18
4. Shea Weber: 8,116:20
5. Alex Pietrangelo: 8,055:50

(Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Roman Josi are very close behind them.)

Killing penalties is one of the toughest jobs, and it can be a very specialized one. Using the 2013-14 to 2016-17 standard, only one defenseman logged 1,000 penalty minutes. Meanwhile, six players logged at least 900.

1. Andy Greene: 1,115:48
2. Alex Pietrangelo: 996:28
3. Zdeno Chara: 986:38
4. Karl Alzner: 935:08
5. Jay Bouwmeester: 945:03
6. Francois Beauchemin: 900:15

(Big-minute guys Doughty and Weber also ranked up high in penalty killing.)

For a significant defenseman, Pietrangelo carries a considerable workload. Consider how much tougher his role has become over the last few seasons.

2013-14: 52.3 percent offensive zonne starts vs. 47.7 defensive
2014-15: 48.4 offense, 51.6 defense
2015-16: 46.9, 53.1
2016-17: 43.1, 56.9

Pietrangelo still manages to produce offensively, so the 27-year-old is quite the all-around gem.

Gritty leaders

However you feel about certain “grit” stats and how helpful they actually are for a team, it’s easy to admire players who put their bodies on the line.

Using the framework of 2013-14 to 2016-17, Kris Russell easily leads the NHL in blocked shots with 907, even doing so in 277 games while Dan Girardi comes in second place with 719 in 300 contests. Russell blocks a hearty 3.3 shots per game.

It’s easier to understand Girardi slowing down when you consider the bumps and bruises he likely endures. Girardi blocked 719 shots during that span, and he also delivered 690 hits. (Shea Weber is a similar bruiser: 637 blocked shots, 644 hits in 313 games.)

Karl Alzner piles up those grit stats while spending a lot of time on the PK, which is predictable but also commendable.

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These stats don’t guarantee that the listed defensemen work “harder” than others. Still, it’s easy to get lost in possession stats and other considerations, and lose sight of how much effort goes into the dirty work in hockey.

If you’re bored and hockey-starved on this holiday, consider clicking around the above links to notice certain names that show up consistently. It might give you a greater appreciation for players you otherwise might have dismissed.

Blues are locked into many salaries, but mostly in a good way

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This post is part of Blues Day on PHT…

When considering the future of the St. Louis Blues, especially looking at their Cap Friendly page, the immediate thought is that they’re really “locked in” to their current core group.

So … let’s start this Blues cap analysis by looking at that very core group.

Mostly ripe core

As of this moment, nine key players are signed through at least the next three seasons at a total cap cost of $47.425 million:

Vladimir Tarasenko: $7.5M through 2022-23
Alexander Steen: $5.75M though 2020-21
Jaden Schwartz: $5.35M through 2020-21
Patrik Berglund: $3.85M through 2021-22
Vladimir Sobotka: $3.5M through 2019-20
Alex Pietrangelo: $6.5M through 2019-20
Colton Parayko: $5.5M through 2021-22
Jake Allen: $4.35M through 2020-21

Now, there are some quibbles with that group.

Steen, at 33, might see some steep regression. Some might be a bit underwhelmed at Sobotka and/or Berglund, at least when it comes to such term.

Even those issues are debatable, though, and the overall look is quite intriguing. You might grimace at the idea that $7.5M is “cheap,” but that really might be fair in assessing Tarasenko. Since 2013-14 (his first full season), Tarasenko scored the fifth-most goals in the NHL with 137. Only Alex Ovechkin scored more during the past three seasons.

Allen seemed like he was getting a respectable deal early on, but considering how his numbers skyrocketed once Mike Yeo replaced Ken Hitchcock, that $4.35M could be a Cam Talbot-ish bargain.

It stings to lose Kevin Shattenkirk, but for all we know, Parayko may eclipse Pietrangelo as the Blues’ best defenseman before their contracts expire. Considering how nice a bargain Pietrangelo is, St. Louis has some very good things going for them in the high-end.

Speaking of that defense …

Things get more interesting when you consider contracts that will be up sooner.

In particular, there could be decisions to make after 2018-19, at least if GM Doug Armstrong isn’t as proactive as he tends to be. Here are some notable defensemen who only have two years left: Jay Bouwmeester ($5.4M), Carl Gunnarsson ($2.9M), Robert Bortuzzo ($1.15M), and Nate Prosser ($650K). Joel Edmundson, meanwhile, is slated to be an RFA after this season.

Edmundson seems like a keeper, but beyond that, the Blues must ask some tough questions about players like Bouwmeester. J-Bo already reached the 1,000 games plateau, and he’s just 33.

Such choices might end up being tough, yet at least the Blues have options. That’s especially true if Vince Dunn eventually makes the leap and Jordan Schmaltz can reach some of that first-round potential.

Who else will join the core?

Considering his $7M price tag, Paul Stastny hasn’t always lived up to his billing in St. Louis, placing him under pressure to earn a new deal with his current contract expiring after 2017-18. Even so, there’s also pressure on the Blues to decide what to do with Stastny; what would be a reasonable price to re-sign him or would they move him for assets much like they did with Kevin Shattenkirk?

Robby Fabbri is another key contract year to watch.

The Blues would honestly be smart to sign the 21-year-old for cheap, as there have been more than a few flashes of brilliance already with Fabbri. If they don’t, though, the 21st pick of the 2014 NHL Draft could easily parallel Viktor Arvidsson – in production, if not style – this coming season.

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A greedier Blues fan might be a little frustrated to see the team take the careful approach over the last few years, including letting David Backes and Troy Brouwer walk.

To an extent, St. Louis seems to lack that “surplus” scorer that really drives pre-season hype through the roof. It’s also up to Mike Yeo to build on the work Ken Hitchcock left behind.

Still, when you consider the lack of albatross contracts and the handful of good-to-brilliant deals on the books, the Blues seem like they’re in a pretty good place. The question is: can this group do better than that?

Under Pressure: Paul Stastny

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This post is part of Blues Day on PHT…

On the opening day of free agency in 2014, the Blues signed free agent center Paul Stastny to a four-year, $28 million contract. It instantly made him the highest-paid forward on the team — since surpassed by Vladimir Tarasenko — and, in announcing the deal, GM Doug Armstrong raved about Stastny’s hockey IQ and how he “thinks the game strong.”

It was expected the gifted playmaker would become St. Louis’ top-line center.

But things haven’t exactly gone to plan.

The Stastny era is now three years old, and the major theme throughout has been health — specifically, his lack thereof. He’s missed 42 contests over that time, and failed to crack the 70 games-played plateau in each of the last two seasons. Unsurprisingly, his production has tailed off. After racking up 60 points in his final year in Colorado, he’s gone 46-49-40 with the Blues, and now heads into a contract year facing a number of major questions.

Among them:

Is Stastny a No. 1 center?

Blues head coach Mike Yeo certainly thinks so, describing the 31-year-old as such when Stastny got hurt back in February.

“He’s usually the first guy over the boards for a power-play faceoff or the first guy over the boards for a penalty-kill faceoff, and those are key,” Yeo said, per the Blues website. “He’s a very important player for us. You don’t take out a top-line center from too many lineups where they don’t feel that.”

The Blues certainly paid him like a 1C. At $7 million per, he’s making more annually than the likes of Patrice Bergeron, Nicklas Backstrom, John Tavares and Jeff Carter. What’s more, the Blues don’t have much depth down the middle. Patrik Berglund has proven to be a decent, if unspectacular, option that scored 23 goals last year, but his ceiling is a 3C that can be pushed into the 2C role in a pinch.

Jori Lehtera, who underwhelmed last season, was flipped to Philly in the Brayden Schenn trade, but the Blues might have the same problem with Schenn that the Flyers did —  is he a center, or better suited on the wing?

Youngsters Robby Fabbri and Ivan Barbashev can also play the middle, but aren’t yet considered full-time guys. Fabbri’s coming off a torn ACL.

So is Stastny a No. 1? Traditionally speaking, maybe not. In St. Louis, maybe so.

Do the Blues want to keep him?

Given what we just laid out, probably. But it would have to be at the right price.

Next July, Armstrong has some work to do and not a ton of cap space to do it with. The most pressing contracts will be for a pair of young RFAs — Fabbri, and d-man Joel Edmundson — while Stastny’s the lone UFA of note.

If Stastny’s willing to take a significant haircut, his return could happen. Signing with St. Louis back in ’14 was essentially a homecoming, as he grew up in the city and went to Chaminade College Prep School. Both his father and brother previously played with the Blues.

The real question, it would seem, is if Stastny fits with the direction of the club. Armstrong hasn’t been shy about turning his team over to the younger generation over the last few years, while cutting ties with veterans in a myriad of ways.

Just consider what happened to Stastny’s former running mates up front. Lehtera was traded Philly, T.J. Oshie was flipped to Washington, while David Backes and Troy Brouwer were allowed to walk in free agency.

Could this be another Kevin Shattenkirk situation?

Two years ago, Armstrong opted to keep Backes and Brouwer — both UFAs — past the deadline, and the Blues responded with a playoff run to the Western Conference Final. But that summer, both assets were lost for no return.

Last year, Armstrong took a different tact, opting to flip Shattenkirk, a pending UFA, at the deadline for a package that included promising forward Zach Sanford and a first-round pick (the Blues later used that pick to acquire Schenn).

“We are not in the business of trading good players for prospects when your team has a chance to win the Cup,” Armstrong said at the time, per the Post-Dispatch. “This team now has to get in on its own. It’s going to be more difficult, but if we get in, you always have a chance to win.”

One wonders if last year’s experience might’ve changed Armstrong’s outlook.

All things considered, the Blues fared well following Shattenkirk’s departure. They finished third in the Central Division, and upended 106-point Minnesota in the opening playoff round before bowing out to the eventual conference champ, Nashville, in Round 2.

The big difference between Shattenkirk and Stastny, though, is the depth at their respective positions. Parting ways with Shattenkirk was made easier by the presences of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, and the emergence of Edmundson and Colton Parayko.

At center, the Blues don’t have such options.

Looking to make the leap: Vince Dunn

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This post is part of Blues Day on PHT…

When it comes to talented young defensemen, the St. Louis Blues don’t rebuild so much as they reload.

Consider, for a moment, what transpired last season. A pair of 24-year-olds, Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson, cemented their places as core d-men of the future. Jordan Schmaltz, the club’s first-round pick in 2012, made his NHL debut. And this came on a Blues defense in which veterans Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester continued to carry the mail, finishing first and second on the team in TOI per game.

Now, there appears to be another kid on the horizon: Vince Dunn, the 20-year-old taken in the second round of the ’15 draft.

Dunn turned pro last season following a three-year junior career in Niagara, and performed extremely well. He led all AHL Chicago blueliners with 13 goals and 45 points in 72 games, then racked up another six points in 10 playoff contests. He repped the Wolves at the AHL All-Star Game, and finished as the league’s top rookie d-man scorer.

In most organizations, that would have you knocking on the NHL door.

But the Blues aren’t most organizations.

As mentioned above, there’s a ton of depth on defense. Pietrangelo, Bouwmeester, Parayko and Edmundson are locked in as the top four, and Blues GM Doug Armstrong has options for the bottom spots in veterans Carl Gunnarsson, Robert Bortuzzo, Chris Butler and Nate Prosser.

As such, Dunn is facing an uphill battle to crack the roster, especially since marinating him in the AHL for another campaign is an easy call.

Yet there is something to consider — increased offense from the back end.

Like many clubs, the Blues have it from the top-end guys. Pietrangelo produces an an elite rate, which included a career-high 14 goals last year, and Parayko has averaged 34 points over his first two years on the job. But after those two, things dry up. Edmundson and Bouwmeester aren’t offensively-minded guys, while Bortuzzo and Gunnarsson combined for just 11 points last year. The Blues also lost a significant offensive weapon by dealing Kevin Shattenkirk to the Caps at the deadline.

Which is why we should point out that, in the aftermath of the Shattenkirk deal, Armstrong pointed at Dunn as one of the players in the minors that should see an increased opportunity.

Dunn wasn’t the only youngster Armstrong singled out, though. Schmaltz was in the mix, as was former Providence standout Jake Walman (who left school to turn pro in March). Still-unsigned RFA Petteri Lindbohm is also right there, having played 40 big league contests over the last three seasons.

So, put it this way. It would be a mighty big leap for Dunn to stick in St. Louis this fall. But given how he responded to the jump from junior to the AHL, making it shouldn’t be ruled out.

Senators are getting a bargain now, but keep an eye on that Erik Karlsson contract situation

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This post is part of Senators Day on PHT…

Erik Karlsson wasn’t playing at nearly 100 per cent during the Stanley Cup playoffs — and he was still by far Ottawa’s best player in their run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Not only was he Ottawa’s best player, he was often the best player on the ice between the Senators and their opponents, despite playing through a foot injury. That landed him a vote for the Conn Smythe, despite the fact his club came oh-so-close but ultimately didn’t make it to the Stanley Cup Final.

While brilliant in the playoffs, he paid quite a price.

The surgery on his injured left foot took place in the middle of June and requires a four-month recovery. The Senators remain hopeful that their best player will be ready for the beginning of the regular season in October.

While Karlsson gets plenty of accolades for the skill he possesses and his ability to log big minutes during regular season and playoffs — making it look easy at times, too — he may not get enough credit for just how durable he’s been over the last four years.

He had a string of three consecutive seasons in which he played the full 82-game schedule. That streak was interrupted in March at 324 consecutive games played due to his injury suffered right before the playoffs.

As Mark Stone aptly put it at the time: “He’s the best defenceman in the world. If you take him out of your lineup, it’s obviously a huge blow.”

The Senators have a number of key contributors like Craig Anderson in goal and Kyle Turris and Mike Hoffman — among others — up front. But the success of this team hinges greatly on Karlsson being in the lineup and healthy enough to play. Even on one healthy foot, he showed he was still capable of carrying Ottawa, but the Senators will gladly take him at 100 per cent health in two months time.

Off the ice, it’s worth mentioning that Karlsson has only two years remaining on his contract before he’s eligible for unrestricted free agency. At a $6.5 million cap hit, you could argue that for what Karlsson provides them every game — not just the points (71 in 77 games this past season) but being able to play almost 27 minutes per game on average — Ottawa is getting a bargain on that seven-year contract right now.

Karlsson is a premier defenseman at the age of 27, and yet his $7 million salary for next season is at the same level as Jeff Petry, Alex Pietrangelo and Johnny Boychuk, per CapFriendly. For Karlsson, that number does bump up to $7.5 million in the final year of his contract.

That is, of course, going to change with his next deal.

The Senators have benefited greatly from having one of the game’s best players on their blue line. He showed that once again in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. He’s won the Norris Trophy twice and has four nominations in total.

And it won’t be long before the Senators will have to pay accordingly in order to keep Karlsson in Ottawa.