Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Older, wiser Pietrangelo continues to grow as Blues captain

Defenseman enters second year wearing 'C' having experienced 
first year of highs, lows; knows what to expect better moving forward

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It was a little over a year ago when the Blues elected to put defenseman Alex Pietrangelo in an exclusive group.

Pietrangelo was named the 21st captain in franchise history that forever changes his stance in Blues hockey history.

The one-year anniversary of his anointment came and went. It was Aug. 26, 2016. But in the one year of his time wearing the fabled 'C,' it adds a year of experience for Pietrangelo's resume.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo will begin his second season as captain when
the Blues open training camp Friday for the 2017-18 season. 

The 27-year-old can look back and reflect on the highs and lows of his time as the successor to David Backes where Pietrangelo hopes to build on more wealth and knowledge of being a leader moving forward as the Blues get set to open training camp Friday for the 2017-18 season.

Pietrangelo, a King City, Ontario native just outside Toronto, makes a full-time home in St. Louis with his wife Jayne. There comes more added responsibilities for the Blues' No. 1 defenseman, not just on the ice but off it as well. 

But in the time he's held the 'C,' Pietrangelo is comfortable wearing it, tackling the responsibilities that come with it and is ready to continue to lead the charge for the Blues moving forward. 

"You just feel more comfortable," said Pietrangelo, who has 65 goals and 238 assists in 539 regular-season games spanning seven full seasons and parts of nine. "I think going into the year, it's not something more than you expect but sometimes when it's your first year, maybe you try and do too much."

Pietrangelo, who put up a career-high in goals with 14 last season to go with 34 assists and 48 points in 80 games, is surrounded by veteran players who can help guide him when the going gets tough. Guys like Alexander Steen, Paul Stastny, Jay Bouwmeester, Kyle Brodziak, Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko and now newcomers Brayden Schenn and Chris Thorburn, guys that have been through the wars and know the ins and outs of how to keep a locker room in tact and pushing forward together as one.

"I think the biggest thing was really just relying on the other guys in the locker room, now bring 'Thorbs' (Chris Thorburn) in, another veteran guy who's been around, it just makes it easier on me, not just to pick their brains, but they can kind of help me with things that I need," Pietrangelo said. "We're not getting any younger in our room, we've got a good group of guys that have been here for a while and have been here together. We understand each other as people and as players and in that aspect I'm lucky that there hasn't been too much turnover and it's easy to know how to kind of relate to each guy.

"It's no different on the ice. If you try to do it by yourself, it's not going to work, so you've got to be sure you rely on everybody else. When you have an older group, it's a little bit easier because they've been through it, they know how to be pros, they know how to take care of business. I'm a people person, too, so I like to get to know each guy but even us bringing 'Schenner' over, I know him from the world juniors so I'm kind of lucky that, like I said, it's not trying to rebuild anything, it's just kind of getting to know guys again."

Being named captain is essentially no different than, for example, someone's first year in high school or first year in college, or even one's rookie season in the NHL. That first experience with something new takes time to adjust, but with each passing day, things tend to become less complex and each experience is seamless the more you go through things.

Pietrangelo wore an 'A' under Backes and was part of the leadership group for coach Ken Hitchcock, the third coach Pietrangelo's played for but the one with the most longevity after Andy Murray and Davis Payne. And changing to Mike Yeo midseason could have been tough on the first-year captain, but Pietrangelo handled it as expected -- like a pro.

"When you look back at it, I guess when you think about it, it was (tough), but when you're in the middle of it, you just kind of deal with it," Pietrangelo said. "You don't really think about it too much. When you look back, we had the World Cup at the start, we had the Winter Classic, then we had the coaching change and we had a couple ups and downs in terms of the way we were playing. I think once we found our groove after the coaching change, it became a lot easier because then you were just able to focus on hockey. A coaching change is never easy to go through.

"... I've been in that leadership group for a few years now. Knowing guys as well as we know each other, it's always a little bit easier, but I guess that can also make it a little uncomfortable if you get into situations where some things need to be said. Lucky enough we've got a good group that if I do say something or if somebody else does, everybody understands it."

All captains wear their hearts on their sleeve, but each go about their methods of leading in different ways. Some are more vocal and emotional, and some lead by example and go with the unified approach of relying on fellow veterans to lead collectively.

This is who Pietrangelo is.

"You can probably ask those guys," Pietrangelo said. "I didn't really change ... I'm not going to change who I am as a person. I am who I am. I really want to make sure on the ice that I was leading by example. It kind of sounds cliche, but especially in practices it's an opportunity to kind really set the standard. Off the ice, I'm going to be the same way. I'm a people person, so If I want to say something to somebody, I don't have a problem saying it. 

"Off the ice, on the ice, it's communication. It starts from Doug (Armstrong) and makes its way down. Everybody's got to be on the same page. It's kind of my job to buffer the coaches, the GM and the players.

"I wouldn't say anyone yells at each other. The one thing you learn, the more you've been around the game, as you get older as a person, you've got to treat everybody differently. You can't treat two people the same way. Some guys are going to react differently to different things. That comes with experience. I enjoy getting to know people, I enjoy understanding them as a person and family. I guess than kind of helps me knowing how to approach them."

And as the Blues, who lost in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to the Nashville Predators a year ago in six games after upsetting the Minnesota Wild in five games to begin the postseason, embark on a new challenge of trying to maintain a level of consistency to crack the top eight and compete for a Stanley Cup again, Pietrangelo said he'll approach Year Two of captaincy without too much change.

"Same way, just use the momentum that we had I think at the end of the year," Pietrangelo said. "Use what I learned last year and try and turn it over into training camp and move forward into the season. 

"We haven't made that many changes. The guys that we did bring in, I already knew. For me being captain, it's an awfully easy change. The biggest difference is a whole coaching staff come in, but I played with 'Syd' (Darryl Sydor) and I played with 'Otter' (Steve Ott). That makes it a little easier.

"... Everyone's trying to get better all the time. Every game you learn something. There's always something that happens. The game's so unpredictable, the game's so fast that you've got to take that opportunity to learn from it. I always said to the young players, 'Nothing's ever going to be perfect. Do what you can to get better. There's always room for growth.'"

And this is how he was taught by some of the great players when Pietrangelo first came onto the roster, guys like Keith Tkachuk, Barret Jackman, Backes, Steen, Jay McKee, Paul Kariya and others.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Alex Pietrangelo is the 21st captain in Blues history. 

Now Pietrangelo gets to pass along wise advice and help to the younger players coming through the ranks today like Robby Fabbri, Ivan Barbashev, Zach Sanford, Jordan Schmaltz, and up-and-comers like defensemen Vince Dunn and Jake Walman, Tage Thompson, Robert Thomas and Klim Kostin ... like the wealth of information Pietrangelo got in 2008.

"I enjoy it," Pietrangelo said. "Captain or not captain, that doesn't have a bearing on anything. I enjoy watching guys grow. I enjoy watching them develop and playing. I do like helping guys along the way because a lot of it too is not so much the on-ice stuff. It's a big life change for a lot of people coming in. There's a lot of things happening. I think it's my job and the other guys' to really help guide them through. We're lucky. We've got a bunch of guys who are an open book, so if anyone has any questions, they know they can pick our brains.

"I'm old. I'm not getting any younger, let me tell you. Now we've got guys that are eight years, nine years that are younger than I am. It's scary to think about."

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