Friday, March 11, 2011

Youngest d-unit in league learning on the fly

Blues winning with youthful, makeshift
lineup, looking for fourth win in a row tonight

ST. LOUIS -- What do the numbers 28, 24, 22 and 21 mean? They're just numbers, right?

They could be a list of lottery numbers, sure, but they also represent the respective ages of the defensive unit that the Blues marched out on the ice Thursday night against the Montreal Canadiens.

The same Canadiens franchise that is the most storied of all-time.

Let's put it this way, the Canadiens have as many Stanley Cup championships (24) as the ages of Roman Polak and Nikita Nikitin.

Carlo Colaiacovo was the unit's grizzled veteran -- in the Blues' 4-1 victory, their Blues' third in a row -- at the ripe "old" age of 28. There's also Ian Cole and Kevin Shattenkirk (each are 22) and the "baby" of the group and one who's experience is sky-rocketing through the roof, Alex Pietrangelo (21), who had the honor of wearing an 'A' Thursday night for the first time.

If the current six-pack remains the same, the Blues will be using the youngest d-corps in the league. The average age is 23.5 years old. Chicago and Toronto's units average out to 24.5 years. It's difficult to argue when all but one (Colaiacovo) has even hit their mid-20s yet.

But the decision-making, despite a few small bumps in the road, that was being made Thursday resembled a group that had been there before. They have played in a combined 692 NHL games, and of you eliminate Colaiacovo (293) and Polak (213), it's 186 for the other four combined.

Nicklas Lidstrom, who will be in town tonight when the Detroit Red Wings face the Blues, has played 1,480 games himself.

"Through the first period, I thought we skated well, but Montreal does a great job in the neutral zone as far as presenting certain things to you, taking them away," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "I thought we got ourselves in a little bit of trouble with some diagonal play as opposed to some vertical play. Once our guys made that recognition and drew attention to it in between periods, our neutral zone had poise to it, it had support to it, it had direction to it. I thought that's a real credit to the decision-making of that young group."

Aside from Colaiacovo and Shattenkirk, who were acquired through trade, the other four are born and groomed in the Blues' system. They're all draft picks -- two of them first-rounders, and if you include both traded players, five are first-round draft selections.

"We've been getting better any game," Pietrangelo said. "Obviously experience goes a long way. We've been playing some pretty good hockey as of late. We're going to keep getting better here. There's going to be mistakes, for all of us, but that goes along with having a young d-core. We're all supportive of each other. We know what each guy's capable of."

The Blues (31-28-9) have dealt away their captain and backline leader Eric Brewer, 30-year-old Barret Jackman could miss the rest of the season after breaking his right index finger Wednesday night and Erik Johnson, the top overall pick in 2006, has also been traded away.

But the blueliners, along with a host of younger players from AHL Peoria filling in for a team ravaged by injuries all season long, continues to plod along with the cards dealt to them.

"We're learning every night," said forward Andy McDonald, the oldest player on the Blues at 33 years. "A lot of guys are getting opportunities to show what they can do. A lot of guys playing in different situations ... not only different situations but at the NHL level.

"It's a learning experience. We're going to continue to get better and guys are playing well with the opportunity. It's fun when you win and certainly with a younger team, we're learning along the way."

The Canadiens came in hot, winners of five straight games and only had allowed seven goals in those five games. But this Blues' squad was poised under pressure, made correct reads throughout the night and thrived when given the opportunity.

"Like anything in team sports, you're committed to doing things a certain way," said Payne, whose squad will be looking for their fourth win in a row tonight. "You're giving yourself a chance to create an advantage, to create a position of strength. You're amazed at what can happen. These guys are understanding that game by game.

"There's times you have to realize you don't have good cards. I think our guys, especially (Thursday night), recognized that there's a lot of (opposing) skill out there on the ice. Our ability to defend, our ability to work back to the right ice and push plays to the outside is sound hockey. If you don't play as a group, you line up roster against roster, it becomes a difficult task if we're going by what it looks like on paper. But if you're committed to a team game, it's just the formula they need."

* NOTES -- The Blues assigned center Dave Scatchard back to Peoria. Scatchard has been recalled twice in the last 48 hours on an emergency basis each occasion.


  1. This is a terrific article. Seriously, the P-D needs to can Dan O'Neill and his lame puns and unfunny cliches and hire you. Good journalism.

  2. Thanks for the comments. But Dan O'Neill is a good guy and very good writer. I respect him a lot.