Colton Parayko doesn’t know the exact speed of a puck exiting his blade. He has never had it clocked, he revealed Wednesday. But it’s fast. Really fast.
Stopping a Parayko shot requires luck and a prayer. Except there is no time for the latter between the stick swing and the puck’s connection with the back of the net. Blues goaltender Brian Elliott does his best to avoid the blasts in practice; Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford had no choice when a howitzer breezed by him in last series’ Game 7.
“It’s obviously a good shot,” said Elliott. “He’s a big man. I tend to not get in the way of it in practice and I don’t think he goes full-out on us or he is going to hurt someone in front of the net. I’m glad he is on our side.”
Parayko is a rookie who was drafted in the third round of the 2012 NHL Draft. The 22-year-old sat through 85 selections before his name was announced. Most teams didn’t know who the defenseman was. It’s hard to miss a 6’5” frame and it was only because he was playing for rarely-scouted Fort McMurray of the Alberta Junior Hockey League that he, like his slapshot, went unseen. Except the Blues were tipped off to Parayko and then decided to take a chance. Now, five years later, the defenseman is in his first NHL season and playing a pivotal role in what his team hopes is a long playoff run.
“You see a mindset and the work ethic that the kid has -- the first guy that comes to mind is a young Shea Weber, with an absolute bomb and being hard to play against,” said forward Steve Ott. “If he has a potential to be a Shea Weber-esque type of player, that’s some pretty big skates to fill. But it’s going to be exciting to see this kid’s potential.”
Parayko came into the Blues’ training camp last September having just 17 games of professional experience. He played for the Blues’ American Hockey League affiliate Chicago Wolves in the late stages of last season. Remarkably, if it weren’t for a stacked rookie class, Parayko would have likely won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top first-year player during the regular season.
“The learning curve for young players is so short now,” said Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock. “I am shocked and surprised at it. They’re not afraid of the stage and they will be just as good or better the next series because there is no fear in young players anymore. They want to get out there and play as much as they can play, they’re mad when you don’t play them or pull them off the ice because you think you need a veteran player. It’s a good thing.”
The big defenseman posted nine goals, 33 points with the Blues this season and played in 79 of the team’s 82 games. Injuries kept him out of the other three contests. Only two Blues defensemen had more points (Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk) and just 12 rookies in the NHL provided more offense, 11 of them forwards.
Making the NHL club out of training camp was a dream in and of itself. Staying with the team all season and having a hand in a postseason series win seemed unfathomable to Parayko.
“This was my first-ever NHL camp, coming into it out of college,” said Parayko. “Coming in, I didn’t even know what to expect. I just came in and obviously my goal is to make the team and play as many games as I can. It was huge that I had the opportunity to stay. At the beginning of the year, I didn’t envision that I would be playing in Game 7 and scoring. That’s a pretty cool moment.
“Just getting into my first NHL game, that’s obviously a dream by itself. Sticking all season was huge and having a successful season with the guys. It’s been quite the whirlwind but it’s exciting for me.”
Parayko is becoming known for boasting a slapshot worthy of fearing. But it wasn’t always his calling card. He began to develop his shot in his teen years, when he hit a growth spurt that propelled the defenseman up six inches in one flip of the calendar. Parayko grew up in St. Albert, Alberta. His town had a rink four minutes from his house and Parayko took advantage of it daily. He said his shot “evolved” during those years.
“I would go every day, sometimes by myself but I also had lots of friends that played,” said Parayko. “It’s a small town so everybody could get to the rink within 15 minutes and get a pick-up game going.”
Parayko has also been successful at refining his velocity and release in the offseasons by attending various goaltending camps and spending hours every day simply firing pucks.
Those camps along with the once-seemingly insignificant pond hockey games are paying dividends now.
“That kid can shoot the puck,” said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. “I've stood in front of those in practice and I was terrified. We need more than that.”
The Blues want to see a significant uptick in the number of shots the rookie takes in the series against Dallas. In the quarterfinal matchup against Chicago, Parayko took 17 shots, putting two of them past Crawford. Hitchcock wants his defenseman to double that total in the upcoming series. It will require an attitude adjustment for the humble rookie.
“He doesn’t shoot enough,” said Hitchcock. “We would like him to shoot twice as much as he does and I think he’s getting better at loading it up and firing it. We would just like him to shoot more and get it away quicker. He’s working hard to adapt that attitude that he is going to be selfish.
“I think sometimes he is so unselfish that he wants to make a play to help other people. But we need him in this series to be way more selfish. We need that thing coming hard and fast.”
With more shots, Parayko’s shooting percentage will likely decrease, but the coaching staff doesn’t care. The shot is unnerving enough that if it doesn’t go in, it will at least create scoring chances.
“Quite frankly, I don’t really care where it goes as long as it makes a loud noise,” said Hitchcock. “It scares the hell out of people. Our attitude is once he’s inside the dots, we want the puck coming to the net because he’s got an uncanny ability to get it through traffic, which is very uncommon.”
Pietrangelo knows the effects of the shots, even at a lessened practice velocity.
“If I was our forwards, I wouldn’t stand in front of it, I’ll tell you that much,” said Pietrangelo. “The kid is special and has been playing great for us. The more he shoots, the better off we will be.”
The Blues are working hard with the young blue-liner, who has been touted as a modern-day Al MacInnis. Fittingly, the two reside within the same organization.
“We talk sometimes,” Parayko said when asked if MacInnis ever offers any advice. “He gives some pointers but it’s pretty cool to get pointers from a guy like that, a recognized player who is known for his shot.”
While MacInnis’ shot was unstoppable for years, Parayko has less of a track record. But more and more players around the league are thinking twice before entering the shooting lanes. It’s a good element for the Blues.
“It's not a secret, but if he keeps shooting he can still score a goal,” said Pietrangelo. “I think he's beating goalies even though they know what's coming.”
“Every night I want to do what I can to help the team succeed, whether it is putting the puck in the net or playing a good game defensively,” said Parayko. “It’s a tough thing to do every night but whenever you can contribute, it’s huge.”
If he becomes a consistent shooter, the contributions will continue to be there.