Young talent leading Blues again -

Young talent leading Blues again

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- St. Louis Blues players have locker stalls at the team's practice facility, all except for Alex Pietrangelo. The fourth overall pick of last year's entry draft has a folding chair near the doorway. A blue note on the wall identifies the space as his.

"He lacks seniority," coach Andy Murray explained. "To me, that's how you build an organization."

It's a not-so-subtle message that the talented 19-year-old defenseman has much to prove, much the same as one delivered two years ago when rookie center David Perron showed up toting a pair of dazzling white skates.

Murray had equipment manager Bert Godin paint the skates black before Perron could hit the ice again.

"You're not going to have a rookie player coming in wearing white skates," Murray said. "So he was a little shocked the next day."

Pietrangelo seemed to be taking it all in stride.

"Look at how much leg room I've got," he joked. "Like flying first class."

The Blues finished sixth in the Western Conference last season, ending a five-year playoff drought on the strength of a 9-1-1 finishing kick, but Murray wants Pietrangelo and the rest of his young players hungry and humble. He hates the word momentum, too, especially when associated with St. Louis' second-half surge.

It came with hard work.

"Everybody's talking about our momentum and the way we played the end of the year, and I got after our guys a bit," Murray said. "We're in the toughest division in hockey and we had to scratch and claw to get to sixth place last year, and does anybody think it's going to be any easier this year?"

Pietrangelo is among a trio of big names who had nothing to do with last season's run behind iron-man goalie Chris Mason and timely scoring. Defenseman Erik Johnson, the first overall pick of the 2006 draft, is ready to reclaim his spot on the top pairing after missing all of last season following reconstructive knee surgery, and Paul Kariya is flying again after a pair of hip operations that limited him to 11 games.

In his first preseason game, Johnson was surprised that he wasn't sharp. Hall of Fame defenseman Al MacInnis, now in the Blues' front office, advised Johnson to keep things simple and remember it had been 17 months since he'd been in a game

"When I think 17 months it's a little bit easier, but I still expect the best out of myself all the time," Johnson said. "It's coming back, and every game it'll be better."

The Blues are seriously seasoned at only one position, with Mason -- coming off a career-high 57 games -- and backup Ty Conklin both 33. Keith Tkachuk (37) and Kariya (34) provide veteran stability for the forwards and Darryl Sydor (37) is expected to be a steady hand on the back line.

The top scoring threats are Andy McDonald, who had 44 points in 49 games, and Brad Boyes, who had 33 goals.

Mostly, though, Murray will be counting on the kids. Perron, Johnson and center Patrik Berglund are 21, forward T.J. Oshie is 22, and forwards David Backes and Alex Steen are 25. Defenseman Roman Polak, who had the top scores in conditioning tests, is 23.

"I just think they have a great young team," Sydor said. "They've got a great core here."

The Blues open the season in Sweden, playing the Red Wings Oct. 2 and 3 in Stockholm. It's a unique opportunity beyond the bonding experience.

"It's an event, it's stimulating," team president John Davidson said. "We have to be responsible for spreading the word of the game. It should be a win-win for everybody."

Pietrangelo played eight games with St. Louis last season and more than held his own. Murray and the front office judged he'd be better served by another year with his junior team, so they shipped him out.

If he makes the roster for good this time around, tough love might be a reason.

"I gained a lot of confidence and worked on a lot of things," Pietrangelo said. "It's been really positive. Now, going forward I've got to make sure I impress so I stick around."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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