Thursday, November 19, 2020

There's unquestionably no doubt: Blues' blue line now belongs to Parayko after Pietrangelo departure

Team's top defenseman gets ringing endorsement from player he replaces to 
anchor defense, claims can Parayko elevate game, elite enough to be the one


ST. LOUIS -- The moment reality set in after Alex Pietrangelo was no longer a member of the Blues, there's always the instant shock of what just transpired and why it happened.

Obviously there were emotions, particularly among Blues fans on losing a staple to the franchise, and obviously from a guy like Pietrangelo himself, who spent his entire 12-year career after being drafted fourth overall by the Blues in 2008, becoming the first captain in franchise history to hoist the Stanley Cup in 2019 before departing as an unrestricted free agent and signing a seven-year, $61.6 million contract with the Vegas Golden Knights on Oct. 12. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Colton Parayko (left) becomes the team's top defenseman after the
departure of Alex Pietrangelo via free agency.

There was always the idea that it could happen, but when it came to fruition, there's still a stinging feeling of losing a franchise staple.

How could the Blues allow their captain of the past four years, one they molded and groomed the past 12 years to leave just like that with no compensation to boot? And more importantly, who will be able to replace the 24:38 ice time Pietrangelo averaged in his career during the regular season? Who will play those minutes Pietrangelo averaged (27:03) in eight playoff seasons with the Blues? Who becomes the No. 1 defenseman moving forward?

They're difficult questions to answer, but in the case of the Blues, it's actually quite obvious. And if it's hard to recognize who Colton Parayko is and the physical specimen he represents, all 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds of him, there's no need to look further.

And after being groomed by the mentor for five seasons, it's time for the pupil to grab the harness and lead the cavalry.

"We've been through a lot together over the past five years," Parayko said of Pietrangelo. "When I came into the league, he's been a good mentor for me, a good friend and someone that I was kind of able to lean on when I needed a direction or somewhere to go. That was special for me to have a player like that. You put into perspective that you win a championship together as well. It's pretty cool. 

"I think that all in all, I was very fortunate to get to play five years with him. Obviously you want as many as possible, but you've just got to take the best from it and that we had five really good years together, five years that were great. We know what kind of a defenseman he is. He plays in all situations, he plays a lot of minutes, plays every role. It's one of those things where he did it all out there."

And if anyone on the outside questions whether Parayko can be that top-pair defenseman, consider the endorsement from the player he's replacing.

"Yeah, I think so. I think he's already an elite player, but I think with more opportunity and knowing he's the guy on the backend, he's going to be the guy, the leader of the backend, I think he's going to thrive in that position," Pietrangelo said. "I think watching him continue to get better and the things I tell him is he can play with that confidence. I don't want to say arrogance, but a form of arrogance where he's got to trust his abilities to make the plays I know he can make and I've seen him make on a consistent basis because he's got all the tools with the hockey sense and the intangibles of skating, the skill to do all those things. It's just trusting his ability on a consistent basis to do that, but everybody knows what a world class player he is. It's just for him, trusting his ability night in and night out."

By no means is this to discredit Pietrangelo's contributions for the Blues, not only for the Cup run but his entire career, but let's take a look at some of Parayko's numbers during the playoffs, particularly against Boston in the Cup Final in 2019 that lends one to believe that he can grab the torch.

Let's present a legitimate sample size why Parayko can finally at 27 years of age be a top-billing defenseman after being mentored by Pietrangelo, and for all intents and purposes, being in his shadow the past five seasons, something Parayko by his own admission didn't mind.

The Blues needed 26 games to win it all, nearly running the gamut of 28 if each series went the full seven-games, and of those 26 games, Parayko, who partnered the majority of the time with the consummate mentor, veteran Jay Bouwmeester, played 24:37 or higher in 16 of 26 games, including all seven of the Cup Final. As a matter of fact, Parayko never played less than 26:08 in any of the games against the Bruins and their high-powered offense, and when coach Craig Berube needed a shutdown pair to put the clamps on the likes of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron among the other of Boston's powerful offensive threats, chances are that the Bouwmeester-Parayko duo had their shoulders tapped by the coaching staff and sticks ready to be laid on the ice.

Parayko's performance in that series was a coming out party of sorts to the rest of the hockey world. Not in St. Louis, though.

"I don't think for you and I that it was his coming out party because you and I watch him night in, night out, but I think for the rest of the NHL it was," Pietrangelo said. "For a lot of players it was. People saw how dominant he can be in that role and that big role too. Obviously he and I shared a lot of responsibilities, so for him to be able to take that next step, offensively to find the balance of offense and defense to become a dominant player is going to be fun to watch and I think he certainly has the capabilities to do it, and I think when he gets put into that position, he's going to thrive."

Parayko played a total of 188:42 in the series against Boston, most of any Blues skater, and his 26:57 average ice time per game was tops among both teams. It comes with the territory when one knew he'd shadow Boston's top-end players for nearly half the game, something he embraced with open arms. 

"You get the challenge of playing those top players, they're the best in the world," Parayko said. "They make plays, they're going to make plays. You obviously are not going to stop it 100 percent. They're trying to score as well and that's why they're the best players in the world. They're going to make plays, but at the same time, the best part about it is the challenge of how it can be exciting. It's just fun to go up against those challenges. Moving forward, it would be fun to take on these challenges. Our d-core is incredible. It's going to be fun to take it on as a whole and with Petro leaving, it's going to be up to all of us to step up and make it happen and just come together."

Parayko averaged 25:07 during the 2019 playoffs over 26 games, and it was no coincidence that Berube would go to him in most 5-on-5 situations and penalty kill situations, particularly against the Bruins and their NHL-best top power play. The deeper the Blues got into the playoffs, the more minutes Parayko gobbled up, including four games of 24:41 or more against the Dallas Stars in the second round, four games of 24:59 or more against the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Final and of course, 26:08 or more in each of the seven games against the Bruins, including a series-high 27:53 in Game 4 and 27:37 to finish things off a Cup championship in Game 7.

So the question is not whether Parayko can shoulder the responsibilities, it's more what can he add that will come with the territory. But one thing's certain, he's eager to attack it head-on if given the chance.

"Of course," he said. "I'm excited if that's how it goes and I'm looking forward to the challenge. But we've got such a good d-core that we can all be put in different situations, we all are able to play with different partners. I think that's the beauty of our d-core back there is that we can all play together and all play in different situations. But in terms of that, if it calls for different scenarios, more ice time, great. I'm looking forward to it. Over the course of my five years, I've been privileged to play in a lot of different scenarios and coaches have put a lot of trust in me, whether it be power play, penalty kill, even strength against other teams' top lines to play. That's good that I got that opportunity and I got to play in those situations and be ready for them."

What Parayko will have to be mindful of, and it's something he's been so good at in his career with a 51.5 percent Corsi-for and a 52.3 percent Fenwick-for, is his possession metrics will have to be stout as a top billing d-man. And with the Blues priding themselves on being a puck-possession team to achieve success, that trait will be more important than ever.

"Just game by game, you can tell if you have the puck more in their o-zone or if we're defending a little more," Parayko said. "It's easy to know. I think the style we play and when we've been successful, especially in the playoffs two years ago, it's one of those things, our team is so good at holding the puck. Just keeping it down low and having possession time in the offensive zone, you've got to go back and look at the way we grinded teams down. We just kept cycling the puck. Take pucks to the net, that's hard to defend against and as a defender when teams are coming at you like that, it's hard but it's exciting because that's the style we play. I think it's definitely important to have the possession time. It could be a huge benefit."

Where Parayko will get a bigger chance to thrive, as Pietrangelo said, is on the offensive end, and along with it will come more power play time, more chances to be put in positions to unload that heavy howitzer of his or distribute the puck depending on the circumstances.

Parayko has 159 points (39 goals, 120 assists) in 386 regular-season games and has matched a career-high in goals with 10 in each of the past two seasons. That's where Parayko's biggest jump will have to come from.

"I think the consistency on both ends. We all know what kind of defender he is," Pietrangelo said. "We know that he's an elite defender. I think now with me being gone, he might have an opportunity to be in some bigger roles offensively. For him it's finding that balance of, 'OK, how do I continue to become an elite defender and create opportunities offensively?' You look at some of the guys that play in that kind of situation like a Shea Weber, [Zdeno] Chara when they were in their prime, these guys that have those big shots that create offense shooting the puck. I think he needs to find that confidence, I say arrogance, but confidence to know that he can make those plays offensively and he can take those shots and he's going to be able to create that offense.

"Those guys who get into the higher minutes are playing in every situation. You start playing No. 1 PP, No. 1 PK or No. 2 PK, you're going to be up there with the big minutes. I know for me, I felt better playing more minutes. I think maybe I got used to it. I think the more you play sometimes, you tend to get a little more patient knowing that you might have some more opportunities. I think for him too now that he may play more minutes, even though he already plays a lot, it's finding that balance of not pushing it too much, being too high-risk, being patient waiting for your opportunities offensively to know that you can create stuff. Sometimes you know that if you're playing less, you want to do as much as you can in such a short period. You try and find ways to facilitate both ends of the ice within those 26-27 minutes. As you play more and you play more minutes, you know when those opportunities are going to come when it's matchups or zone starts or whatever it is. You know when to capitalize on those opportunities."

And even though they're not teammates anymore, if Parayko ever needs to talk or make a phone call to discuss a solid game or a challenging night, Pietrangelo said he's a phone call away.

"For me, certainly I enjoy it and I think I have so much respect for him, I want to help him," Pietrangelo said. "I continue to want to help him. I've told him my phone's always open, I don't care what the question is. Sometimes when you say mentor, you think on the ice too, but there's a lot of things away from the hockey rink that you want to help guys and help them grow as people. On the ice, I certainly see a lot of things in him that I went through. I'm always a sounding board for him, and I think sometimes it's good to have a teammate that you trust, somebody who's went through it because we're going to give a non-biased answer and I'm just going to tell him what I think and tell him how he can get better or what I think he can do. I certainly appreciate that, that he says those kind of things because I definitely took a liking to it and I certainly enjoyed helping him. When you become such good friends and teammates with somebody, and David Backes did the same thing to me, Barret Jackman, same thing, Carlo [Colaiacovo], these guys. Just because I'm not on the same team doesn't mean I don't want him to continue to become better and become a better player and get into that upper echelon defenseman, Norris Trophy conversations. Those are the things that I want to see him do because that's how I feel about him as a player and as a person."

Moving forward, the Blues will have a different makeup along their blue line. Pietrangelo is gone, for all intents and purposes, and Bouwmeester is gone although he hasn't made his intentions public yet after suffering a cardiac episode last season. It's not that big and mean Blues blue line anymore. Moving forward, it will be Parayko, Marco Scandella, Carl Gunnarsson, Robert Bortuzzo, Vince Dunn, Justin Faulk and newly-acquired Torey Krug, formerly of the Bruins. 

"I'm excited obviously," Parayko said of adding Krug. "We're all excited for that matter. He's a great all-around defenseman that can play in all situations as well and we're all looking forward to adding him obviously. I got a chance to meet him actually here in St. Louis (recently) and I think he's great. He's going to fit in perfectly, which is going to be awesome. He's got the skills and the part of his game are going to fit in right with our group, I believe. He's a competitor for sure and it's fun to watch. We saw it there in the Stanley Cup Final when we played him. I think he'll just fit in well with our team and our systems. We're looking forward to having him in a Bluenote."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Colton Parayko (55) celebrates scoring an overtime goal with teamate
Brayden Schenn last season against the New York Islanders.

It's no secret that this blue line is now Parayko's, and he'll continue to lead by example. He's one who doesn't get too emotional in situations but is a bit annoyed at the notion that the Blues will slide back in the pack and their Cup window has narrowed and been reduced because of Pietrangelo's departure.

"Look, there's no doubt that Petro is one of the best, if not the best defensemen in the league, right," Parayko said. "But you kind of look around the league and you can argue who's the best player, not the best player but only one team wins it. A lot of teams have arguably the best player in the world, but when it comes down to it, I think it's a team game. There's twenty-whatever players out there that need to make it happen. He obviously had a huge role, plays a lot of minutes, is an unbelievable player and I think it is tough, but I like our team. Our team is great. I love our additions. I'm looking forward to the season and I definitely would not say that the window is closed by any means."