To replace Pietrangelo, Blues defense should spread the wealth, specialize

To replace Pietrangelo, Blues defense should spread the wealth, specialize
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With Alex Pietrangelo out of town, some look at Torey Krug as his natural Blues replacement. Others believe that hulking, skilled right-handed holdover Colton Parayko will be the Blues’ go-to guy. Personally, the best answer is probably “All of the Above,” with Vince Dunn as option C.

Let’s begin with the Blues’ stated goal of more Parayko.

Blues view Parayko as “the alpha male” of defense after Pietrangelo leaves

Blues GM Doug Armstrong made no bones about it to Jeremy Rutherford of The Athletic (sub required). It’s clear to him that Colton Parayko is the Blues’ No. 1 defenseman, and that could mean asking for more from Parayko on the power play.

“I’ve talked to Colton and, in my view, it’s his team on the back end right now,” Armstrong said. “He’s the alpha male. He’s been here the longest, he’s got the game to be the alpha male, and he wants the challenge.”

From a defensive standpoint, leaning that much more on Parayko, 27, makes a lot of sense. When you’re looking for possible missteps, going too far out of Parayko’s prior experience could be a mistake. At least when you factor in Blues personnel (more on that soon).

So, sure, Armstrong is right in turning to Al MacInnis and raving about Parayko’s howling slap shot. Yet, when Rutherford notes that Parayko’s taking some grief for being selective with said slappers, it’s possible Parayko is the one in the right.

A lot of hockey people allow an undeniable strength to morph into a predictable crutch. Consider how, say, Shea Weber is no guarantee for a great power play. As scary as Weber’s shot is, if you’re telegraphing to point shots, teams will take the lumps and load up on ice packs to block those howitzers.

Is there some room for Parayko to unleash that slapper? Sure, but don’t go overboard.

Judging by Parayko’s history by metrics such as his Hockey Viz charts, a mix of heavy defense and supplementary power play work likely makes the most sense.

Blues defense without Pietrangelo; Parayko Hockey Viz
via Hockey Viz

Again, Parayko can be a weapon. Just maybe not the primary one from the Blues’ blueline.

Get it Dunn

Instead, Craig Berube & Co. should cook up ways for the Blues to lean into everyone’s strengths. In some cases, that might mean realizing you have something of a hidden gem.

As of this moment, 24-year-old defenseman Vince Dunn lingers as a restricted free agent. If I were an opposing GM, I’d blow up Armstrong’s phone to find out how much the Blues actually value an underrated defenseman.

That’s because, based on an earlier look at the Blues’ depth chart, Rutherford indicated that Marco Scandella and Justin Faulk are likely to grab the second pairing roles, pushing Dunn down to the third. This sure seems like a mistake, unless Armstrong believes he can pull off a “pump-and-dump” trade to get a mulligan on the entire Justin Faulk era.

Now, sometimes you run into a chicken-and-the-egg argument with underused defensemen. Maybe Vince Dunn laps up the cushy minutes, and would shrink in greater assignments. The Blues should think long and hard about finding out what more Dunn can do, as much as anyone else though.

Consider the value Dunn brought to the Blues from a Goals Above Replacement standpoint, via Evolving Hockey:

Blues defense GAR 2019-20, Evolving Hockey
GAR chart via Evolving Hockey

Perhaps, instead of heaping possibly too much of a burden on Parayko’s broad shoulders, it would be better to spread the wealth?

The advice isn’t to dislodge Parayko, but instead to ask him to take baby steps forward rather than a leap.

Delightfully for the Blues, Dunn’s shown evidence of being a useful player both ways.

Theoretically, you could break up Alex Pietrangelo’s minutes by committee. A chunk goes to Parayko. Dunn can fill in various blanks as a competent two-way option. Maybe you trust Marco Scandella with some defensive headaches. And then you consider a serious weapon they just added …

Give most of those Pietrangelo PP minutes to Krug, don’t overthink this

If you polled hockey people about Torey Krug, you’d probably get mixed reactions about his all-around play.

Those hockey people would have to bury their heads pretty deep in the sand to ignore Krug’s work as a power play wizard, though. You know someone makes a PP impact when you need to make the Y-axis of a RAPM chart bigger:

Torey Krug RAPM chart via Evolving Hockey

Now, sure, you can nitpick Krug there, too. Chances are, Krug’s power-play work got a big boost playing with David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, and the rest of the Bruins’ dangerous unit.

But, at some point, if you’re straining to prop up one option and downgrade another, maybe you’re risking leaving value on the table?

Blues should be open-minded with post-Pietrangelo defense

No doubt about it, losing Alex Pietrangelo hurts.

That said, the Blues could limit the damage if they’re smart, and willing to wring out every drop of efficiency they can from a still-potentially-strong unit.

Parayko is, indeed, likely the most crucial piece. That said, Torey Krug could replace a lot of Pietrangelo’s offense — or maybe even be an upgrade there — while possibly being more competent defensively than some realize.

But, most of all, the Blues’ defense could profit if they embrace the hidden gem they seem to have in Vince Dunn.

Really, with a potentially condensed 2020-21 NHL schedule, versatility could be quite important. Do you want to lean too much on Parayko if there are a lot of back-to-backs, or would you rather keep your workhorse (*sigh* /”alpha male”) fresh for the would-be 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Exploring these avenues could bring significant rewards for the Blues defense. Hey, you never know, maybe they’d even (gasp) end up ever-so-slightly better?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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