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|Alex Pietrangelo played in 8 NHL games last season before being sent back to his junior team, the Niagara Ice Dogs. Pietrangelo is hoping to stick this year (Getty Images). |
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Tom Brady? In a hockey story?
I'll never forget hearing Niagara Icedogs coach Mario Ciccillo tell the Blues that they had just drafted Tom Brady after St. Louis selected defenseman Alex Pietrangelo
with the fourth pick of the 2008 Entry Draft.
"I compare his leadership qualities and demeanor to New England Patriots QB Tom Brady," Ciccillo told everyone involved with the Blues after St. Louis made the pick. "Alex is every coach's dream. He has a great work ethic on and off the ice. He's not afraid to try new things. I believe he has the potential of being a Chris Pronger type of defenseman in the NHL. He's the complete package. He can score, make plays, check and hit."
An Eastern Conference scout watched the bigger, stronger and more confident 6-foot-4, 210-pound Pietrangelo and said after just a period and a half of this year's prospects tournament Sunday, "St. Louis' right side on defense is set for the next 10-15 years with Erik Johnson, Pietrangelo and Roman Polak
Looking back at the 2008 draft, there are some who will say that the riches on defense in '08 could not be argued -- and will be talked about for years as potentially the best ever. No argument, not after what Drew Doughty, the second pick in the draft behind center Steven Stamkos, did for the Los Angeles Kings. Not after the glimpses of greatness Zach Bogosian showed Atlanta fans after the Thrashers picked him third and before he sustained an early season injury. Not after the shutdown minutes Luke Schenn, picked fifth overall by Toronto, provided the Maple Leafs as a rookie. And not after Pietrangelo gave the Blues eight poised teen-aged games at the start of last season, before he was returned to Niagara to get more minutes and further his development.
Sure the Blues could have kept Alex, but they wanted him to play more minutes that could not be provided at the NHL level. Plus, he also could work on a few small items in his development.
"We sent him back to juniors to work on having the same intensity each shift, not like in juniors when a quality defenseman plays 25-30 minutes a night and kind of saves up his energy for key points in the game," said Blues coach Andy Murray. "Alex went back there and did everything we asked -- and then he got stronger and more confident with where he's at in our summer training program in St. Louis.
"I think young players, particularly defensemen, find it difficult to cope with the speed of the game in the NHL. Things obviously happen faster -- and that's an adjustment that is hard to make. But seeing Alex on the ice now, he seems to be playing with more speed and passion -- almost like the game is slowing down for him like it does for a lot of defensemen who play like quarterbacks out there."
Alex didn't like the demotion, but he took a positive approach to leaving the NHL ... if only briefly. It was clearly enough to whet his appetite for more playing time in St. Louis.
"It was a disappointment to go from the greatest hockey league in the world back to juniors, but Erik Johnson (Blues first overall pick in 1996, who went back to the University of Minnesota for a year of development after that draft) told me not to get angry, the Blues know what they're doing with their prospects," Pietrangelo said before he scored his first goal of the tournament in a 5-4 loss to Columbus Monday night. "The Blues gave me a few things to work on. It turned out OK."
"When you see what it's like in the NHL," Pietrangelo explained, "it makes you want it even more."
And does the game seem a little slower to Pietrangelo?
"It's not so much slowing down for me," he said. "It's more confidence."
Pietrangelo is an upbeat young man who projects an air of confidence and good upbringing. Good advice is there for Alex if he wants it from his dad's cousin, Frank Pietrangelo, a goaltender who backstopped the University of Minnesota to two NCAA Frozen Fours and helped the Pittsburgh Penguins win a Stanley Cup in 1991.
Confident, not cocky, Alex said, "I know I have commitment. I'm dedicated to whatever I'm doing, whether it's hockey, golf or fishing. I always want to be No. 1 and I never want to be in the background."
"He's come a long way," Blues President John Davidson said. "He's no longer the wide-eyed kid, he's kind of a veteran now. He did everything we wanted him to work on after we sent him down last season ... and more.
"He's stronger physically and more mature mentally. You can see how silky smooth he is with the puck. We like the progression. We like what we see and look forward to seeing how he does at our big camp."
And it's not wrong to think that Pietrangelo and Johnson can be co-QBs on defense for the Blues the way Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger were for nearly a decade.
"I don't know about that," said MacInnis, now the Blues' VP of hockey operations. "I know I see a vast improvement after all the work he's done this summer. I see more maturity. More confidence.
"It says a lot for a teenager to make the kind of commitment he has."
A little like the kind of commitment Tom Brady made to become a great quarterback for the New England Patriots?
QB? Yes. Leader? You bet.
Tom Brady? Let's not get ahead of ourselves, OK?