Thursday, September 16, 2010

Open competition for spots on defense will come from four

Pietrangelo, Strachan, Cole, Nikitin vying
to make Blues squad as camp opens

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When the Blues drafted Alex Pietrangelo with the fourth overall pick of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, it was perceived that he would be a lock for the big squad right from the get-go.

After all, those picked around him -- Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), Zach Bogosian (Atlanta) and Luke Schenn (Toronto) -- were immediately ushered into the big leagues without the benefit of growth and those much-needed learning curves playing junior hockey or in the minor leagues.

Pietrangelo, 20, played eight games with the Blues in 2008-09 and another nine last season but on each occasion was returned to his junior team. Sure, the disappointment was obvious at the present time. There's not a player that wants to be told that he's not ready to play in the NHL.

But when he steps onto the ice today at St. Louis Mills for on-ice conditioning drills, which officially kick off the 2010-11 training camp, Pietrangelo -- along with fellow defensemen Ian Cole, Tyson Strachan and Russian Nikita Nikitin -- will vie for one of two defensive spots that are up for grabs for the upcoming season.

They won't be auditioning for spots to play in Peoria. The big ticket is St. Louis.

After a couple seasons playing in juniors of the Ontario Hockey League along with the World Junior Championships while playing for Team Canada, Pietrangelo can look back and see the benefits of going back to improve his game, becoming a bigger, stronger player and of course to mature accordingly.

"The biggest thing is I'm two years older," Pietrangelo said. "You're stronger and more experienced at what I've been through the last two years. I learned a lot when I was up here and obviously when I was in Barrie last year and what we did in the playoffs and also in the World Juniors. I'm two years stronger and working with (strength and conditioning coach) Nelson (Ayotte), it makes a huge difference."

The Blues' defensive corps is pretty well set from one through five, with Erik Johnson, Barret Jackman, Roman Polak, Eric Brewer and Carlo Colaiacovo entrenched in their positions. But the team needs a sixth and seventh defenseman to fill the slate, which will make for an interesting competition with the aforementioned quartet. Fifty percent of those involved will finally be able to live out their respective dreams of being NHL players. The other half will to go to the Blues' American Hockey League affiliate in Peoria and work to get to the big club in the future.

"... Nobody has an upper hand when you talk about those players like Strachan, Petro, Cole and Nikitin," insists Blues general manager Doug Armstrong. "No one has a wealth of experience that's going to say, 'Well, it's my job.' They're all coming in green."

Of the four players, the 25-year-old Strachan has the most NHL experience. Strachan played 30 games in the 2008-09 season when the Blues were ravaged with injuries to their defensive unit, registering three assists. Strachan played eight games a season ago and picked up two assists.

"It's been two years; this will be the third year I'll be with the organization and obviously I wanted to be here last year," said Strachan, who signed a one-year, $600,000 deal in the off-season. "This year looks like a situation where I'm going to have an opportunity to get a good look and compete for a spot here and stick for the whole year. That's the only thing I can ask for. I'm hoping to have a good camp. I stayed here all summer and worked hard and I'm ready to go."

Cole, who continues to rise up the prospect ranks after being selected in the first round (18th overall) in 2007 out of the University of Notre Dame, says the important mindset for everyone involved is to have tunnel vision. One's thought process is that they're going nowhere but here.

"That's the mentality I have to have going into it," said the 21-year-old Cole, who just competed with Pietrangelo on the Blues team that finished 2-2 in Traverse City, Mich. at the Prospects Tournament. "If you're going into camp thinking, 'Oh, I'll give it a try and go back to Peoria,' that's not a good mentality to have. I want to go in there and I want to play well enough to play for this team. Whether that happens or not ... I just need to go out and play as well as I can. I'll just try and control what I can control and let the chips fall where they may."

Nikitin is the unknown of the group, but the 24-year-old has been a fixture with HC Avangard Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League and gives the Blues a look at a solid two-way defenseman. Nikitin, who seems committed to staying in North America one way or the other, was the team's fifth round selection in 2004.

No doubt, there will be a healthy competition for whoever prevails.

"We're going to look at what gives our team the best chance to win," Armstrong said. "We're also going to be mindful of development. What we don't need to do is fast-track anybody here. We don't want to put players in positions to fail. We want to put them in positions to succeed."

They're teammates now and in the end, but once they hit the ice Saturday, it's every man for himself.

"You want competition," Pietrangelo said. "That's going to push guys to get better. Everybody's trying to take everybody else's job and that's just part of the business. The four of us are all going to try and make the team."

Strachan agreed.

"You look at all those guys, it's going to be a battle for those two spots," he said. "I take that as a challenge to myself and I look forward to it. I want to come into camp and just prove that I'm the guy that they need."

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