LAS VEGAS — Alex Pietrangelo will be carrying the weight of many expectations on his shoulders when he finally takes the ice for the Vegas Golden Knights.
Team President George McPhee and general manager Kelly McCrimmon believe the veteran newcomer is the missing link in Vegas’ quest for a Stanley Cup just four seasons after entering the league.
Pietrangelo spent 12 seasons with St. Louis after being drafted fourth overall in 2008 and was the Blues’ captain when they won the Stanley Cup in 2019.
The two-time NHL All-Star defenseman signed a seven-year, $61.6 million contract with Vegas as a free agent in October. It was a costly move, as the Knights traded center Paul Stastny to Winnipeg and fan favorite defenseman Nate Schmidt to Vancouver. They were decisions coach Peter DeBoer was glad the team made considering the way his team looks heading into the season opener Thursday against Anaheim.
DeBoer has watched the 6-foot-3, 210-pound top-tier blue-liner have an immediate impact by blending into an already stacked lineup during training camp.
”(He) looks a lot better in our uniform than in a St. Louis uniform playing against us,” DeBoer said. ”He’s got a great hockey IQ. He loves to talk about how he sees the game being played and systems. Real refreshing. We’ve had some good dialogue. He keeps getting better every day.”
Since entering the league in 2008, Pietrangelo ranks 13th among all defensemen with 450 points. His 109 goals are tied for 11th in that span, while his 341 assists are 10th-highest the past 12 seasons. Pietrangelo also ranks seventh among defensemen with 25 game-winning goals since making his debut.
He’s already established a leadership role during camp, lending his experience and staying vocal throughout practice sessions. He’s displayed the type of speed the Golden Knights will need in the defensive end against a reshuffled West Division that now includes Colorado, Minnesota and St. Louis, a trio against which Vegas has gone 11-15-1 over its short history.
”The speed that we have, especially up front, is going to be important for us. That’s new to me playing forwards that can generate this much speed,” said Pietrangelo, who registered a career-high 16 goals in 70 games last season. ”I think it helps my game moving the puck. As we continue to go and everyone starts finding their place and getting used to the systems, I think it’ll certainly make things easier for me in the way I want to play the game.”
Pietrangelo, who has been paired with Brayden McNabb, figures to be a key cog on the penalty kill, something Vegas desperately needs. Over their first three seasons in the NHL, the Golden Knights are tied with Detroit in allowing a league third-worst 170 power-play goals — 32 of which came in the postseason, which ranks last.
”He’s one of those guys that he can be a one-man breakout,” said Vegas forward Ryan Reaves, who played with Pietrangelo for seven seasons in St. Louis. ”That’s one thing I’ve always said about him is you put it in his corner, he’s hard to hit, he’s very sneaky in the corners with the puck. He sees the ice very well. He makes one move on you, makes you miss, and he brings the puck out by himself.”
The second defensive pairing figures to be Alec Martinez and Shea Theodore, who finished sixth in the voting for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman last season, two spots behind Pietrangelo. The third set will include young Zach Whitecloud, who emerged last season with his stellar play. Veteran blueliner Nick Holden cleared waivers on Tuesday, meaning Vegas has 10 defensemen it can use this season. Expect Whitecloud to be paired with Holden, Nic Hague or Dylan Coghlan.
That being said, it’s the addition of a top-tier defenseman like Pietrangelo that has the Golden Knights excited for what might be their deepest and most talented team.
”He really does it all,” top-line wing Mark Stone said. ”I think once the season starts you’re going to see his play speak for itself.”