(HockeyStL) -- It has been over ten years since the Blues had a player worthy of winning one of the National Hockey League’s most prestigious trophies in the James Norris Trophy. The trophy is handed out at the end of each season to the NHL’s best defenseman for that particular season.
Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger won the award for the Blues in consecutive years, but since then the award has gone to the likes of Zdeno Chara, Duncan Keith, Nicklas Lidstrom, and most recently, Erik Karlsson. Since Pronger and MacInnis moved on, the Blues have not had a defenseman with a legitimate shot at winning the award, that is, until last season.
Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara, and Erik Karlsson highlighted the Norris Trophy ballot last season, but lurking on the bubble was young Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo.
Pietrangelo, 22, has gained a reputation around the league for being a solid young defender, and nearly snuck onto the finalist ballot last year in only his second full NHL season. Pietrangelo felt honored to be considered for such an award.
“It’s fun to be in that category with some great players that were in that crop, said Pietrangelo. “I know everybody says that ‘they wouldn’t be there without my teammates’ but we play such a well-balanced game that it becomes everybody else on the team, including myself with the way we play.”
Pietrangelo is used to being on other teams’ radars, but after what the Blues did last year, teams have become more aware of what Pietrangelo is capable of. For years Pietrangelo has shown at all levels that he is better than most defensemen. Last year he led the Blues in assists (39), and accumulated 51 points in 81 games. The Blues feel that his performance last year will have teams targeting Pietrangelo even more this season.
“I think last year, the second half of last season he played with a target like a Nicklas Lidstrom, like a Ray Bourque, like a Shea Weber,” said Blues general manager Doug Armstrong. “He's going to have that target now the rest of his career so he's going to have to learn to protect himself, and continue to protect himself. He's a player that when you play against the St. Louis Blues he's circled. Their coaches will spend three or four minutes every night talking about that player so he's going to have to learn how deal with that. But that's not something I'm concerned he'll have trouble with. I think he knows how to handle that. But that's the next step is being able to do that on a consistent basis as a marked man.”
“Obviously you have to expect it, said Pietrangelo. It’s going to be a challenge, and I use it as motivation, but the whole team is a target now after the performance we had last year. A lot of people know what we are capable of, so everybody is in the same boat right now.”
Pietrangelo excels in many areas of his game, yet he is not content with the status quo. Pietrangelo has been working vigorously on the defensive side of his game, as well as establishing his presence in front of his own net. Last year the Blues were able to experience firsthand what it takes to get to the Stanley Cup Finals, as they matched up against a bigger and more dominant team in the Los Angeles Kings. Pietrangelo witnessed the Kings’ strong forwards establishing themselves in front of the Blues’ net during that series, and made it one of his goals to work on preventing that from happening again this season.
“I’ve been trying to work on my body positioning, in order to be able to handle the big guys down in front of the net. Obviously, that is a tough thing to do. I need to get stronger. There are a lot of big, strong forwards in this league; we saw it against Los Angeles in the playoffs, handling those guys is a tough thing to do.”
Though Pietrangelo is not a very physical player, very few people are able to find flaws in his game. Most are transfixed by his ability to set up the Blues’ offense, and make things happen when he is along the blueline. However, both Pietrangelo and Hitchcock point to the small details of Pietrangelo’s game that make him so effective.
“I think Pietrangelo is a great player, but I also think he is very underrated,” said Hitchcock. “He does a lot of things that, to the naked-eye, go unnoticed, but to the coach’s eye are huge. He makes little plays that get you out of trouble all the time. He gets so many players out of trouble by doing the little things so well.”
“The biggest thing for me is to get pucks through to the net,” said Pietrangelo. “Don’t make too many plays, keep it simple. I like to make plays, but we have big, strong forwards in front of the net, so sometimes just putting the puck to the net in the right spot and letting them get a stick on it is going to be the best play.”
Part of what makes Pietrangelo an effective defenseman is his hockey sense. Most defensemen will choose to make a hit over focusing on the puck. Pietrangelo can read the play well enough to know what play to make, and when to make it.
“If the opportunity is there, I’m not going to shy away from (a hit),” said Pietrangelo. “But I think good body positioning, and stick positioning when the puck is there is a better play than trying to make the big hit and get yourself out of position. Everybody plays the game differently, but for me it is if I can make a play with my stick, and advance the puck, get the team out of our zone, that is my first priority.”
The Blues will heavily rely on Pietrangelo when the season gets underway on Saturday. This season will be the toughest test yet for the talented defenseman, as his partner for the past two seasons, Carlo Colaiacovo, has signed with the Detroit Red Wings, and left Pietrangelo with the task of finding chemistry with another defenseman. This season is big on more than one front for Pietrangelo, but one motivation for the defenseman is his entry-level contract expiring at the end of this season, and the pay raise he is likely to earn.
General Manager Doug Armstrong will make re-signing Pietrangelo a top priority. Armstrong admits that as much as he loves the defenseman’s on-ice performance, his off-ice attitude makes him that much more attractive to keep around.
“It's not only about what they do on the ice but it's their demeanor off the ice, said Armstrong. “He has quiet confidence. He has no arrogance which is really something I appreciate. He walks into that room and he shows the respect to a Barret Jackman he shows respect to a Roman Polak. He understands where he fits on the ice but he also understands the hierarchy of the NHL and working towards leadership roles, working towards getting that responsibility. I think he's just a special player but as importantly he's a special person.”