Commentary

Pietrangelo still bringing the steady

Updated: April 22, 2012, 10:03 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- Al MacInnis knows a thing or two about playing defense in the NHL.

The Hockey Hall of Famer has watched Alex Pietrangelo night in, night out, and believes the young star defenseman's All-Star season is a glimmer of bigger things.

"He's going to win some Norris trophies," said MacInnis, the vice president of hockey operations for the Blues.

"Alex's game on both sides of the puck, his brightness, his hockey sense, the way he reads the plays, the way he uses his stick -- I mean, he's going to be a good player for a long, long time," MacInnis told ESPN.com in an interview this week.

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock knew what he had in Pietrangelo even before he ever set foot in St. Louis this season.

The two were part of Team Canada's entry at the 2011 IIHF world hockey championships, with Hitchcock as head coach. Hitchcock's view of the young defensemen changed in those three weeks last spring in Slovakia.

"He was brought to us in the world championships saying he was a mobile defending defenseman that had a little bit of offense," Hitchcock said this week. "And at the end of the tournament, he ended up running our power play. So I think he's an underrated offensive player."

Hitchcock believes last year's tournament was an important part of Pietrangelo's development as a top-notch NHL defenseman.

"I'm not sure the evolution of his game was up to speed offensively until the world championships, and I think he's been able to feed off that venue, where he ended up quarterbacking a pretty good power play, and do a pretty good job," said Hitchcock. "I think he's just transitioned that into this season, this year."

With 51 points (12-39) in 81 regular-season games in his second full NHL season, the 22-year-old native of King City, Ontario, just north of Toronto, has pushed his game to Norris Trophy levels.

He likely won't win the award for the NHL's top defenseman this season -- Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara and Erik Karlsson seem to have more profile this year -- but Pietrangelo absolutely deserves to be in the conversation.

"If Petro was playing somewhere else in a bigger market, and with the type of year he's had, there's no question that him and Karlsson would be neck and neck for the Norris," said MacInnis.

Pietrangelo plays a complete game; he is effective in each end, is trustworthy at any time of the game, and has ice water running through his veins.

"Exceptional vision and puck patience complemented by great hockey sense," an NHL scout from a rival team told ESPN.com via text. "Exhibits a maturity in puck-moving decisions far beyond his years. He'll be real good for a long time.''

Pietrangelo signaled he was every bit worthy of his status as the fourth overall pick in the 2008 NHL draft when he put up 43 points (12-32) and a plus-18 on the non-playoff Blues last season (his first full NHL season). But the step he took this season put him on another level.

"What's amazing to me is that he's played like a 10-year vet," said MacInnis. "His consistency is unbelievable."

Just don't ask Pietrangelo to talk about himself. Like so many hockey stars, the conversation quickly changes to the team.

"I believe in how I play," Pietrangelo told ESPN.com. "I feel I can contribute. And I play on a pretty good team. There's a lot of good players around me. We play a good team game and that's going to end up with everyone having success."

The question some had, of course, including the player himself, was how he'd fare in his first NHL playoffs.

Through four games against the Sharks, he looks just fine, thank you. No hesitation, no lack of confidence.

"You realize that every shift, every play, can relate later in the series," Pietrangelo said, explaining what his first few playoff games have been like. "Every time you're on the ice is that much more important. What happens in Game 1 can affect what happens in Game 6 or Game 7. ...

"The intensity is a bit higher, there's more urgency on every shift, but once you get your feet underneath you, you really don't feel that much of a difference."

Of course, if he has any doubts, he can always lean on one of the greatest defensemen to ever play the game: MacInnis.

"I was picking his brain the other day, actually, when we got into San Jose, about the playoffs and how he treated it," said Pietrangelo. "He said the first round, the first game, is hardest to adjust to, but then you get your feet underneath you and you find out how you got to play. He's been a good influence for me and for all of our D. Having young guys like we do, he's someone to look up to."

MacInnis enjoys being able to help out in that fashion.

"It's nice to be able to give him some feedback," MacInnis said. "You tend to forget this is the first playoffs for a lot of our guys. You go back on your experiences and tell him, 'Play your game, try not to do too much, do what you've done all year. You've had an unbelievable year and you don't want to change anything.'"

MacInnis figures Pietrangelo can draw on his playoff experience in the Ontario Hockey League.

"He knows the intensity goes up two or three notches; he knows he'll be circled on the board by the other team; he understands the other team will finish their checks on him and try and wear him down," said MacInnis. "He's a smart enough kid to know all that. You don't have to tell him a whole lot."

No, it seems like young Mr. Pietrangelo has already figured out a whole lot.