ST. LOUIS -- Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk are considered the staples of the St. Louis Blues' defensive corps. But when the former first-round picks draw comparisons to arguably two of the best defensemen to play together with the Blues, and the entire NHL, it's still quite the feeling.
"It's very humbling to hear that," Shattenkirk said, referring to comparisons with former Blues greats Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger. "Those two guys are Hall of Fame defensemen. They changed the game. They changed the way that defensemen played the game and the way we play it now, the two of us.
"I don't think we're there yet, but that's what we want to hopefully aspire to be."
Pietrangelo, the fourth pick of the 2008 NHL Draft, and Shattenkirk, No. 14 in 2007, are not only leading the Blues in scoring, but the duo is tied for first and third, respectively, in scoring among defensemen (heading into play Tuesday, Shattenkirk is tied with Tobias Enstrom of the Winnipeg Jets).
Shattenkirk, 24 years old, leads the Blues with 13 points (one goal, 12 assists), and Pietrangelo, 23, is second with 11 points (three goals, eight assists). Each came into the season with a renewed attitude about where their respective careers are going.
Pietrangelo received considerable talk of winning last year's Norris Trophy after a 51-point season. But even that was a moot point to the King City, Ontario native.
"The worst thing was watching the [Los Angeles] Kings win the Cup knowing that could have been us," said Pietrangelo, a Mississauga IceDogs product who moved to Niagara of the Ontario Hockey League. "That's all that mattered to me.
"I knew I had to get better. I want to help this team win. That's my ultimate goal ... meaning I've got to play better or take more of a load on my shoulders. That's what I'm going to do, keep working to get better, keep working to get stronger, and try to influence games even more."
Losing to the eighth-seeded Kings was a humbling experience for the Blues, who were the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. Shattenkirk and Pietrangelo came to the realization that improvements needed to be made.
"Stamina was probably the top priority," said Shattenkirk, a Boston University product. "Not even so much in the summer, but during the season I'm keeping my body in the best shape that I can. That was pretty glaring last year how intense things got in the playoffs and how much you need to ramp your game up, and it's hard to do it if you're not ready physically. The other thing was getting more mentally tough. I felt like I was easy to hit and get off my game. That's an area I really have to improve on as a young player."
The two have been able to influence the Blues' power play, which ranked No. 1 in the NHL at 34.8 percent (16-for-46).
"We've done a good job of keeping things pretty simple, especially offensively," said Shattenkirk, who has 99 career points as he plays in his third season. "We're getting pucks to the net, when we see an open pass we're making it, and our forwards are doing a great job of creating their scoring chances.
"I also think our power play's done such a great job, for two guys like us, that's where a lot of our points will come from."
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Shattenkirk is one of the most poised defenseman with the puck that he's coached.
"First of all, he's physically stronger. He's played," Hitchcock said of Shattenkirk, whom the Blues acquired with Chris Stewart in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche for former No. 1 pick Erik Johnson. "He played quite a bit in Finland (for TPS Turku during the lockout). His game's just all around calmer and better.
"I think he's always been a gifted offensive player, but I think when you're an offensive player and the game kind of slows down a little but, then I think you can see guys even make better plays. I think he sees the ice in the offensive zone on that backhand as good as anybody around.
"He finds open people, he finds sticks which help on the power play. He knows the angles; if he's going to shoot it wide, he knows where to put it. He's a really smart offensive player."
Hitchcock finds enough admiration for Pietrangelo, who has 108 career points in his third full season, not necessarily with spoken words but more so in responsibilities. Hitchcock gives Pietrangelo the most minutes on the team and plays him in all situations. And as many top-flight defenseman Hitchcock has coached, including current Blues consultant of hockey operations Sergei Zubov as well as Darian Hatcher, Pietrangelo is one Hitchcock considers a rare breed.
"There's not many defensemen where you say, 'This guy's got a chance to be a No. 1 defenseman,' but Petro's got a great opportunity here," Hitchcock said. "We have an opportunity to have a player like him become that guy. He's a young guy, he's just learning how to play the game. The sky's the limit here.
"There's not many players in the League that are able to play against top players, play the [power play], kill penalties. We can play him in heavy minutes and not worry about it. He's emerging into a really good player. If he stays the course, he can be one for a really long time."
Shattenkirk and Pietrangelo pair up on the ice only when the Blues are on the power play. They each have defensive partners in even-strength play but communicate constantly.
"We talk quite a bit, actually," Shattenkirk said. "It's good to have guys like that you can reference a play with and maybe see what he might do or what he saw from the bench and a different angle. We do a good job of watching each other.
"Having that kind of outlet and that kind of peer is really helpful because, in a way, we need to see the game through the same eyes. It's nice in that respect."
They may be faced with their greatest challenge to date: getting the Blues out of their current 0-4-1 funk.
"It's never easy when you lose [five] games in a row," Pietrangelo said. "It's going to be a bit of a process here, but it's going to have to be right away. There's not a lot of time to correct it. It's got to be corrected now."
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