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.