Before the season began, THN’s Ryan Kennedy penned a piece on St. Louis Blues rookie defenseman Colton Parayko. Kennedy called Parayko the Blues’ “secret weapon,” and through 14 games this season, it’s been easy to see why.
Parayko, 22, came into Blues rookie camp this season having suited up in 22 AHL games in 2014-15 after completing three seasons with the NCAA’s University of Alaska-Fairbanks. And with training camp on the horizon, Parayko impressed at the rookie tournament, and Blues GM Doug Armstrong said the young defenseman was going to make the decision to keep Parayko in the NHL or let him grow his game in the AHL a tough one.
“He played very well for us in the American League playoffs and put in a fabulous summer,” Armstrong told Kennedy. “Probably the best benchmark for all of our young players as far as commitment to off-ice workouts. I’m looking forward to seeing him at main camp against that level of competition.”
Well, Parayko turned in an excellent pre-season, registered six points — all assists — in five games and made the Blues roster out of main camp. Then the season began, and Parayko has yet to cool off. Through one month, Parayko is fifth in rookie scoring with five goals and 10 points, is averaging more than 20 minutes per night on the St. Louis blueline and has already become a big part of the Blues D-corps. So, could the Calder Trophy be in Parayko’s sights?
When Edmonton Oilers rookie star Connor McDavid went down with a broken clavicle, the Calder race was busted wide open. McDavid was heating up after a slow start and had scored 11 points in his past nine games before the injury, but now that he’ll be out for what could be one, two or possibly three months-plus, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where he gets back into the Calder race.
There are others right in the thick of things for Calder honors, though. Take the Blackhawks’ Artemi Panarin, the current rookie scoring leader, who has 15 points in 15 games. There’s the Rangers’ Oscar Lindberg, who has seven goals in 14 games despite playing bottom-six minutes. Of course, Sabres’ rookie Jack Eichel, the 2015 second-overall pick, could heat up at any moment, and Coyotes rookies Max Domi and Anthony Duclair seem to get better — and more entertaining — with each passing game. But there’s more than a few reasons to consider Parayko one of the Calder frontrunners.
In what has traditionally been one of the harder positions for youngsters to step into, Parayko has been incredibly steady. St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock hasn’t shied away from putting Parayko out for big minutes, either. When defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk went down, the Blues didn’t panic and instead turned to Parayko to eat top-four minutes. Over the 10 games Shattenkirk missed, Parayko’s role increased, and in the final seven games of Shattenkirk’s absence, Parayko skated no less than 21 minutes per game and scored six points.
Winning the Calder as a rookie defenseman, though, usually takes a Herculean effort. Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad, for instance, won the Calder in 2014-15 because he was such an effective top-pairing blueliner as an 18-year-old, something seldom seen at the pro level. Before Ekblad, it was then-Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers winning the award in 2009-10 with an 11-goal, 48-point rookie campaign where he was a monster on the back end for Buffalo. In total, 11 defensemen have won the award since 1936-37 and only once has their been back-to-back Calder wins by defensemen, in 1962-63 and 1963-64, when Toronto’s Kent Douglas won it the year prior to Montreal’s Jacques Lemaire. That said, maybe Ekblad’s win last season set a precedent.
Ekblad completed 2014-15 with 12 goals, 39 points and averaging 21:48 per game. He was eighth in rookie scoring — second among rookie defensemen to Dallas’ John Klingberg — and slowed significantly after January. It’s still too early to say just what Parayko will manage for the Blues, but after his first month he’s on a near 60-point pace. It’s unlikely he keeps that up, but Parayko could near 15 goals and 50 points from the back end. That might not be tops among rookies, but it could very well be the best mark among freshman defensemen. That would deserve some big-time consideration from Calder voters.
The biggest hurdle for Parayko will be keeping his ice time up and playing important minutes for the Blues. Ekblad won the award thanks to the Panthers’ reliance on him — he was a top-pairing defenseman playing alongside Brian Campbell. In St. Louis, Parayko already saw his minutes drop in a big way with Shattenkirk’s return. After skating nearly 23 minutes in an overtime win over Chicago Wednesday, Parayko played 16:40 Saturday against Nashville. Shattenkirk logged 19 minutes.
However, when making an early case for Parayko, there’s something to be said for the minutes he has played. Whereas Ekblad won the Calder with a heavy dose of offensive zone starts, Parayko has been working nearly equal duty at both ends of the ice. In 2014-15, Ekblad started more than 40 percent of his shifts in the opponents’ end and only 26.1 percent in Florida’s zone. By comparison, Parayko is getting 34 percent of his starts in the offensive zone and more than 30 percent in the Blues’ end. That has still resulted in a 54.5 percent shot attempts for percentage for Parayko.
Only one St. Louis Blue has ever won the Calder Trophy: Barret Jackman in 2002-03. And for the first time in his career, Jackman, now a Nashville Predator, is suiting up outside of St. Louis. Parayko has made himself an early candidate for the Calder, and it would be somewhat fitting should the Blues’ second-ever Calder winner be a rookie blueliner who helped make Jackman expendable.