Arguably best all-around defenseman of talented crop from 2008 draft
By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- So many hockey players in and around the Toronto area grow up and play the game of hockey. It's like a way of life where beginning at an early age is inevitable.
Alex Pietrangelo is no exception. And coming from the small town of King City, Ontario, just a short 45-minute drive from Toronto, it's every kid's dream of making it big.
But only a select few make it all the way.
The Blues took Alex Pietrangelo with the fourth pick in the 2008 NHL Draft.
"Every kid growing up in Toronto or in Canada or any kid playing any sport, grows up and wants to be a professional athlete," Pietrangelo said. "I had the backyard rink at the house my Dad [Joe] made for us. I don't think it really kicked in until I got drafted third overall in the OHL draft and I thought, 'This could be a real opportunity for me and I can actually become a pro.'"
But with a little hard work and push from his father Joe and mother Edi, Pietrangelo was guided in the proper direction. There was also motivation from Alex's uncle Frank Pietrangelo, who played goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins, winning a Stanley Cup in 1991, and Hartford Whalers in a seven-year career.
"I am the way that I am because of my parents," Pietrangelo said. "They did
such a great job raising me and still [have] to this day. ... They're the biggest keys to me getting where I am now today."
Pietrangelo grew up playing with fellow competitors and close friends Steven Stamkos and Michael Del Zotto, who incidentally were all part of that talented 2008 NHL Draft. The 22-year-old was selected by the Mississauga IceDogs of the OHL in 2006 before the team moved to Niagara in 2007.
It was in Niagara where a contingency from the St. Louis Blues needed to see very little. The Blues had a high draft pick. It didn't take long to find their guy.
"We went into Niagara and it was [pro scout] Basil McRae, [director of amateur scouting] Jarmo Kekalainen and myself and I remember standing there on the rail, it was a small rink and we were watching," Blues President John Davidson said. "Petro made two plays which they call look-off plays where he would look in one direction and the forechecker would go in that direction expecting Petro to move the puck and he'd move it in the opposite direction on the tape, a no-look pass. After the second one, Jarmo closed his book and said, 'That's what I came to see.' We drafted fourth that year, Petro was our choice and we were very happy with it."
That year would be 2008 after Stamkos went to Tampa Bay, then defensemen Drew Doughty went to Los Angeles and Zach Bogosian would go to Atlanta. The Blues had their eye on Doughty but didn't feel like he would get to No. 4.
"We were really looking at a defenseman, somebody that can really move the puck," Davidson recalled. "We extensively scouted Doughty, [Tyler] Myers, [Luke] Schenn, Bogosian and all those defensemen. There were a lot of good defensemen that year. ... I saw Bogosian play, I saw Doughty play in the playoffs, I saw Petro play. They were all good players, but with Doughty going early, we zeroed in on picking Petro."
Needless to say, the Blues haven't been apologetic for making the selection.
Pietrangelo just completed his second full season with the Blues, finishing with a career high in goals , assists  and points . The evolution of a player has been quite impressive in such a short span.
But it wasn't without a lot of work, a hard reality check and plenty of motivation.
Many of the high draft selections typically go straight to the NHL, and in that 2008 draft, four of the top five picks all made their respective NHL clubs. Pietrangelo was the exception. He played eight games with the Blues before being sent back to his junior club. The Blues repeated the move in 2009, with Pietrangelo playing nine games before going back. The second time, it was on the advice of general manager Doug Armstrong, who at the time was the assistant GM under Larry Pleau. Pietrangelo took a vicious headshot in a game at Toronto from Ryan Hollweg. It was a decision that was hard to take at the time but looking back on it, the right one.
"Our scouts had extensively watched [Pietrangelo] for a long time," Davidson said. "We knew this may take a little bit longer, which it did, for all the right reasons. We didn't want to rush him.
"I can remember being in Columbus with [then head coach] Andy Murray in the hotel room telling him that he's going to go back to juniors. It was a tough conversation because he's a real competitive-natured kid. But he's never looked back. ... He's a second-year pro and he's got a lot of upside yet. Is he ever a great competitor."
Linemate and good friend Carlo Colaiacovo, who took Pietrangelo in as an 18-year-old, said it was all about maturing.
"The biggest thing I noticed about him is that he stayed the same as a person off the ice," Colaiacovo said. "He didn't get too full of himself. ... He's one of those kids that gets it at an early age. He understands the training part, the diet part and understands the game.
"Here's a kid who came in last year with minimal expectations and finished the year with expectations higher than anyone ever exceeded. He's carried it into this year. He's a real leader for us on the backend, he's a big minutes eater. He hasn't changed his personality. He's still the same guy, very even-keeled. He's got a wealth of skill and it's a pleasure to play with him. I've gotten to know him well both on and off the ice. He's a fun guy to be around, a good friend and even better partner to play with."
Although tough at the time, Pietrangelo looks back with no regrets.
"It's hard to argue that it wasn't the best decision," he said. "Knowing how far I am now and how far I've come, it's a tough thing to go through as a young player, but it's something you have to understand that they've invested their time and money in me. They know what's best for me. ... If they thought that was the best thing for me moving forward, that's what I had to accept and use that time to get better and develop my game."
Pietrangelo's development led to a pair of selections to represent Team Canada at the World Junior Championships as well as the World Championships last summer.
After an 11-goal, 43-point season in 2010-11, Pietrangelo has followed it up by being the third-leading scorer on the Blues this season, trailing only David Backes and T.J. Oshie. He thrived as coach Ken Hitchcock entrusted Pietrangelo by playing him the most minutes (24:41 per game) and playing him in all situations, including power play, shorthanded and 5-on-5 play.
Pietrangelo's emergence enabled the Blues to trade away Erik Johnson, the top overall pick in 2006.
"If you're a fan of St. Louis and a Blues fan, you're watching the emergence of a really good player," Hitchcock said. "... There's not many defensemen where you say this guy's got a chance to be a (No.1). He has a chance to be a one. Not many teams have that. We have an opportunity to have a player like him become a one over time. He's a young guy, he's just learning how to play the game.
Alex Pietrangelo (right) had a career year in goals, assists and points.
"There's not many players in the league that are able to play against top players, play on the power play (and) kill penalties. He's got a chance if he keeps improving to be in that one category. Those are valuable guys where you can play them heavy minutes and not worry about them."
And now Pietrangelo's name is being tossed in with those mentioned as candidates for the Norris Trophy, names that have been synonymous with it in the past; names like Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara, Nicklas Lidstrom. A newcomer in Erik Karlsson, the 15th pick in that 2008 draft class, has entered the foray as well. But Pietrangelo's name has entered into the conversations. It may be the first time, but it certainly won't be the last.
"It's an honor," Pietrangelo said. "There's so many great players that are going to be up for that award. Just to be mentioned in the same category as those guys is something special.
"Hopefully, there's many more to come, but I'm just going to keep working at getting to where I want to be as a player. If that comes along with it, it's something to accept. That all comes along with a good team as well, and I've got to give credit to my teammates as well, who have only made me better."
If the individual accolades don't come as often, Pietrangelo wouldn't be terribly disappointed. After all, his sole purpose for driving to the rink on a daily basis and becoming a better player is for that ultimate prize handed out in June.
"That's why you play the game," Pietrangelo said of winning the Stanley Cup. "Growing up, that's your biggest dream. Every day going to the rink this year with this team, it's been so much fun. Every day is something new and exciting and I think everyone in that dressing room shares the passion and desire that I do.
"I've come a long way, especially since my first training camp at 18 to where I am now. A lot has happened since then. I've always considered myself a hard worker, especially in the off-season. The way I look at things now, it can only get better. I want to keep getting better."