Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Playing wise beyond his years," Pietrangelo everything Blues thought he would be

Team's top pick of 2008 making most of first full NHL season

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When he was drafted fourth overall in 2008, who can blame Alex Pietrangelo if there was a bit of cockiness to him?

Someone out there must have thought he was good enough to be rated so high, right? That someone turned out to be the Blues.

In two seasons in the Ontario Hockey League saw the King City, Ontario native bag 52 and 53 points, respectively, for the nephew of former Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Frank Pietrangelo. There was knowledge out there how good this kid was.

And when the Blues brought Alex Pietrangelo into the NHL in each of his first two pro seasons, growing speculation was he was here to stay. He had the size (currently 6-foor-3, 206-pounds), he had the game and he had the skill.

After all, those defensemen drafted around him (Drew Doughty in Los Angeles, Zach Bogosian in Atlanta and Luke Schenn in Toronto) each received one-way passes to their parent clubs.

Not so for Pietrangelo, who played in eight NHL games in 2008-09 and another nine in 2009-10. The Blues had the luxury of playing Pietrangelo nine games in a season and if they thought it was best to send him back to juniors, they'd do so.

"The first time when I met him, I think he had a swagger back then and really kind of came in like a lot of junior guys," recalled Blues defenseman Barret Jackman. "Just kind of was one of the better players and maybe felt the transition would be a little bit easier."

Not in so many words, but the message from the Blues was simple and went something like this: this is where the big boys play son, and you're not ready for it.

Not yet.

Pietrangelo was sent packing, and there was obvious disappointment in his eyes. Call it a reality check.

But instead of pouting and sulking with the poor, pity-me attitude, Pietrangelo embraced the challenge and attacked it head on. He would go on to play in Niagara and Barrie of the OHL as well as represent his native Canada at the World Junior Championships.

Getting better and becoming more mature were the goals at hand.

Now in his first full NHL season, the Pietrangelo of today compared to when he first donned the Blues sweater is like comparing night and day.

"I think I gained a lot of experience these past couple years in the World Juniors and going to the (OHL) finals last year with Barrie," Pietrangelo said. "It's helped me come to where I am right now with the experience and going back. I'm trying to use that as an advantage. It's got me where I'm at right now, so I feel like it was the right decision."

Pietrangelo, still at the tender age of 21, undoubtedly has the tools to be a special defenseman in this league for many years to come. Blues fans are already witnessing a Pronger/MacInnis type of player.

Sure, the numbers (six goals and 21 assists, plus-10 rating) are decent, and rightfully so, but as coach Davis Payne said after Monday night's 3-2 victory over Vancouver, "He's playing wise beyond his years."

It begs the question if the Blues expected this kind of play so quickly.

"You never know," Payne said. "Our scouts have felt that this is a guy that's got great hockey intelligence, great hockey smarts, understands the game very, very well. We're seeing a guy who knows what play needs be made at what time. He's maturing with his defensive game. He's now playing against top lines, he's now playing in key offensive situations. Doing it at his age, it's very important that he stays focused and continues to grow and learn and develop. That's the one thing that's impressive about him is he understands his work and his drive to get better is high. That's going to take him places."

Nobody's perfect by any means, and Pietrangelo will make mistakes along the way. But as he says, "There's so much to learn. You can tell the difference from the start of the season how important these games are to everybody.

"It was hard to process it all at first. You learn so much every day. Every game, there's a different situation that you've never seen before that you need to kind of break down. That's for me to notice and it's up to the coaching staff to help me out with that. ... There's a new learning curve every day."

What separates the average ones from the great ones is the ability to quickly park those mistakes and move on to the next play. The Blues appreciate Pietrangelo's willingness to do that and not dwell on what doesn't go right.

"He knows there's going to be bumps along the road," Jackman said of his current defensive partner. "But he's mentally strong between the ears and has been able to handle it."

Added Payne, "He's a guy that he's right on to the next play. He understands, he digests. He'll compute what did or didn't happen and put that in the data bank and move onto the next play. If that situation comes up, he expects himself -- as do we -- to make the play correctly and or better."

The Blues feel like Pietrangelo's making a lot of plays, doing things correctly and doing them better. He's averaging 21 minutes, 2 seconds of ice time (third behind Eric Brewer and Erik Johnson) and is also averaging 27.2 shifts per game. He's being rewarded with time in all three phases (five-on-five, power play and penalty kill) as the Blues have no qualms about using him at any given point.

"That's just the coaching staff trusting me, and if I make a mistake, I'll learn from it," Pietrangelo said. "It's a responsibility I've got to put on myself. Things are going to happen out there, mistakes and things that are going to go negative, but it's how you answer from that.

"The big thing is if something happens, just forget about it. You've got another shift coming after that. You just have to learn to put those things in the back of your mind and move forward. That's one of the things I've had to learn is not to dwell on things. That's what video's for and the coaches are there, too."

No video can help a player make the kind of moves Pietrangelo made on the Canucks Monday, when he dangled around three Vancouver players to set up Patrik Berglund with the eventual game-winning goal. That comes from a natural skill set and mindset.

"Each game you play with him, it seems like he sees the ice better," Jackman said of Pietrangelo. "You couldn't say that about him three years ago. I think he read the plays well, but he just didn't react quick enough.

"Now he's got all the skills. He's playing solid defensively, he's moving his feet. Making that play on the power play to Bergy, it just shows what type of skills he has. He's really been a bright spot for our team this year."

With the positive season comes added expectations. Pietrangelo knows it.

There's always that talk of potential this or potential that, such as winning a Norris Trophy.

"I don't think any expectation anyone's going to put on him is any higher than he puts on himself," Payne said. "... The pressure or expectation somebody else might have is very seldom higher than these guys have on themselves. I don't think that he would be bothered by any sort of lofty expectation from someone."

But Pietrangelo has taken the right frame of mind and perfect approach to his career: don't look too far ahead and live in the moment.

"If I get to that point in my career, that would be awesome," he said. "But I'm only 21. Hopefully, I've got a lot of years left in this league, lots to learn, lots of games to play, hopefully. Just take it one season at a time, one day at a time, one game at a time. I don't want to look too far ahead.

"When I come to the rink, I focus on hockey. I'm big on when I leave the rink, just kind of be myself and enjoy life and just be a kid. Sometimes, you need a break from the game."

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