(HockeySTL)-- The year the Blues traded former No. 1 overall pick Erik Johnson to Colorado, one of the returning pieces, rookie defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, was a bit of an unknown.
Shattenkirk, then-22, now 25, had played in 46 games with the Avalanche and had tallied 26 points in the beginning of his first NHL season. When Blues general manager Doug Armstrong and Greg Sherman, who at the time was the Avalanche GM, began finalizing a deal, Armstrong insisted Shattenkirk be included.
Now, 255 games and 114 points later, Shattenkirk is showing why.
“It’s so tough to say,” Shattenkirk’s defensive partner Carl Gunnarsson said when he was asked how Shattenkirk ranks among the NHL’s top defensemen. “I don’t want to put any numbers on it, but for sure one of the most skilled guys I’ve played with. He’s got great vision for the game, is a great skater. He’s doing well now, hopefully he keeps it going.”
Shattenkirk has one goal, 16 points in the first 19 games of the 2014-15 campaign. His 15 assists are the most of any Blues player and rank second among all NHL defensemen.
“I would say yes,” associate coach Brad Shaw answered when asked if this is the best he’s seen Shattenkirk play.” It’s fun to watch a guy at the confidence level he’s at. He’s seeing the ice so well. His puck decisions are razor sharp right now. He’s been such a big part of our offense that he’s just an easy guy to keep putting back out there. It’s fun to watch a guy who sees the ice as well as he does. He’s a big part of why we have had this real successful streak here.”
The 2007 first-round pick is locked up with the Blues through the 2016-17 season after signing a four-year, $17 million deal with the club in 2013. The following season, he made an appearance at the 2014 Winter Olympics and posted 45 points during the regular season. Still, Shattenkirk wasn’t satisfied with his overall play.
A lot of that dissatisfaction came following the Blues’ series loss to Chicago in the postseason. Shattenkirk, despite leading the team with five points, felt he was outmuscled and outplayed at times. He wanted to fix that.
So, with the help of team trainer Nelson Ayotte, Shattenkirk adjusted his summer fitness routine, decreasing his body-fat percentage and adding strength.
“He’s really committed and I think that’s the biggest difference,” said Shaw. “When you put that work in throughout the offseason and in-season, as well, you get to start with a higher level of confidence every day. I’ve never seen his confidence as high as it is now. That’s something he should be really positive.”
Shattenkirk’s teammates have noticed a change, as well.
“He’s beaming with confidence,” said Blues’ captain David Backes. “He had an awesome summer, the best summer of his career. He’s always had the talent, the IQ and the ability to make the play. He’s in tip-top shape. He’s able to play more minutes to extend plays; you see him when everybody is changing he is taking the puck up the ice and making something happen.”
Another aspect playing an important role in the defenseman’s success is familiarity. In past seasons with the Blues, Shattenkirk’s defensive partners would be flip-flopped or he would be consistently playing with Barret Jackman. Shattenkirk’s offensive style and Jackman’s defense-first mentality didn’t always mix.
In the offseason, the Blues, identifying that they needed a quicker transition game traded Roman Polak to Toronto for Gunnarsson, who had 17 points with the Maple Leafs last season. The idea initially was that Gunnarsson would be paired with Alex Pietrangelo, but a delayed debut for Gunnarsson due to offseason hip surgery gave the coaching staff time to re-evaluate. Instead, they thought about the prospect of pairing Gunnarsson with Shattenkirk.
“For me, with Carl, it’s been great,” Shattenkirk said. “He was someone who no one knew what to expect. We knew we were getting someone good, but the chemistry we have been able to find early on has been fantastic.”
Shattenkirk said consistency with a defensive partner is important and he’s enjoying the chemistry he and Gunnarsson are building.
“It’s huge,” Shattenkirk said. “On a forward line, it’s important and on a defensive pairing it’s the same thing. We are learning how to play with each other every night. It’s still a learning process but we are really just enjoying it, talking a lot and working through it. Every game has been a step forward.”
Shaw, who runs the defense, certainly likes what he’s seen so far from the pairing that has combined for 20 points.
“I think they complement each other in certain ways,” Shaw said. “They are certainly growing. They’ve only played a small sample of games. I expect to see a little more cohesion at game 60 and game 80. Hopefully they can stay healthy and get those minutes together.
“Anytime you can play with the same guy over and over and over, you get to learn habit and even body language communication. These are things where you do have to spend a lot of time together to get to, but hopefully they can get to that point.”
The feeling between the two defensemen is mutual. They each admit they feel comfortable and play better with one another. Gunnarsson, who needed a smooth transition into the lineup, found one with Shattenkirk.
“I knew he was good before but it’s totally different being on the ice and playing with him,” Gunnarsson said. “Like I said, he’s making it easier for me.”
A big part of any player’s success is seeing the play before it develops. Shattenkirk, according to teammates, has always had a knack for glancing into the immediate future.
“I think, as a defenseman, he’s seeing everything play out before he lets it go,” Backes said. “It’s working out for him.”
If the consistency can remain for Shattenkirk, he could be in the end-of-the-season discussion for the Norris Trophy, which is obviously any defenseman’s goal. It’s early, but things appear to be lining up for Shattenkirk this year.
“It’s been a good start.” Shattenkirk said. “It’s been something where I have made sure I am staying on the right side of things. I’ve been playing more aggressively but in the right way. I’m not playing stupid hockey or trying to force it. It’s been great.”