Understand one thing: Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo is not a rookie – at least, not by NHL standards.
By NHL standards, any player who sees action in six or more games in any two previous seasons loses his rookie status. And since Pietrangelo played eight games for St. Louis in 2008-09 and nine for the Blues last season, he’s considered an NHL veteran – a 20-year-old NHL veteran who spent the better part of the past two years playing junior in the Ontario League.
To many, that doesn’t seem fair. And Blues coach Davis Payne is one of those many.
“It’s a little bit too bad he doesn’t meet the qualifications as a rookie,” Payne said of the 6-foot-3, 206-pound Pietrangelo, drafted fourth overall by St. Louis in 2008. “He’s doing some things now he was built for when he was drafted. Our scouts were right about him all along - they said, ‘You’ll have to be patient with him’ and they said he has maturing to do physically, but when that happens, they felt the mind and the hockey sense would be there and he’d adapt very well.”
St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong said the patience the Blues have had with Pietrangelo is a crucial organizational attribute when developing players.
“You can’t rush physical or mental maturity,” Armstrong said. “At age 18 or 19 in almost any other sport, an athlete will be in college. So I think there can be some unfair expectations of some of these prospects. You can really stunt their growth if you get over-anxious with them.”
Pietrangelo’s journey started with an eight-game stint in St. Louis to begin the 2008-09 season, where he registered one assist. He was then sent back to Niagara in the OHL for 36 games, then finished with the Blues’ American League affiliate in Peoria, where he had three assists in seven playoff games.
Last season, Pietrangelo played nine games with the Blues, potting his first NHL goal and raising his point total to three. He played a pivotal role as an alternate captain for Team Canada at the 2010 world juniors - notching three goals and 12 points in six games - and was named the tournament’s top defenseman and an all-star. And when he returned to the OHL (this time with the Barrie Colts), he put up nine goals and 29 points in 25 regular season games and two goals and 14 points in 17 playoff games.
Pietrangelo believes the wait to stick in the NHL was worth it.
“It is a huge difference from two years ago - the experiences I’ve had have brought me a long way and I’ve been able to use that at the start of this season,” he said. “Playing for your country was obviously a great opportunity; you’re playing with the best in the world at that age. And to have the role I did last year was a big confidence-booster for me; it’s just too bad we fell a little short in the final.”
Pietrangelo is thrilled to be part of a young Blues core that includes T.J. Oshie, David Perron, David Backes, Erik Johnson, Patrik Berglund and Jaroslav Halak.
“Everybody knows what we have now,” Pietrangelo said. “The rise of young guys like Oshie and Berglund and Perron and Erik Johnson shows us that we have a lot to contribute. We’ve got a new wave coming in and we’re pretty confident in the room with the team we’ve got. We’re young, but we do have some good experience.”
Although Pietrangelo was off to a solid start to the 2010-11 campaign - with six assists in 10 games - it’s his play in his own zone that has his coaches smiling.
“We’re mostly pleased with the fact that, defensively, he’s making his reads, he’s engaging in the battle and he’s not giving anything up defensively, so that we can now take advantage of his offensive gifts,” Payne said. “That’s always a tough thing to come by for a young defenseman. But he’s had a real good balance…and we feel he’s just scratching the surface as far as what he can do.”
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 22 edition of The Hockey News magazine.
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