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Pietrangelo ready to step into bigger role with Blues

by Brian Hedger
After a pair of recent trades, the St. Louis Blues are being talked about because of the big names they exchanged.
First, former Blues captain Eric Brewer was sent to Tampa Bay. Then, St. Louis General Manager Doug Armstrong completed a blockbuster with the Colorado Avalanche that involved four former first-round draft picks, including Blues defenseman Erik Johnson, who was taken No. 1 in the 2006 Entry Draft.
That deal also sent Jay McClement to Colorado and brought Avs power forward Chris Stewart and talented rookie defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to St. Louis. That was a lot of big names to digest in one trade, but a big-name player still on the Blues could benefit the most.
St. Louis rookie defenseman Alex Pietrangelo -- the Blues' top pick in the 2008 Entry Draft (No. 4) -- now has a larger role as St. Louis focuses on the future.
"He's played well enough now to be one of our primary, top-four (defensemen)," Armstrong told this week. "He's going to be a leader for us the rest of this year, and then it's going to be a very important summer for him. It's going to be very important for him to stay focused, but he seems to have the mindset and professionalism to not take a step back -- and also take a step forward."
The path that Pietrangelo took to this point probably has something to do with it.
Prior to this season, Pietrangelo had gotten limited opportunities in the NHL with the Blues in 2008 and 2009, while spending most of those seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, first with the Niagara Ice Dogs and then with the Barrie Colts. He also played with Team Canada at the World Junior Championship in 2008-09 and 2009-10, while playing one game with the American Hockey League's Peoria Rivermen last season.
His extended lower-level experience plus getting extended ice time in the NHL this season have turned Pietrangelo into a promising two-way blueliner for St. Louis. His stats thus far show it: 7 goals, 33 points and a solid plus-12 rating.
"The biggest difference for me now is probably just maturity," said Pietrangelo, who filled in admirably earlier this season when St. Louis lost some veteran D-men to injuries. "Experience goes a long way up here. The more you play, the more you get a feel for how it's a different game than in junior."
Brewer agreed. Before getting traded, the 31-year old veteran took note of how much Pietrangelo was absorbing. Statistics, Brewer said, only provide one part of the picture. Decisions made on-the-fly in pressure-packed situations show another.
"I don't know if people really understand how much goes into a young D-man playing in the NHL, where you can't hook and hold, your foot speed is your biggest weapon and you're not used to guys barreling down on you this fast and making plays so quick," Brewer said. "You're also out there with guys who specialize in checking and taking angles away -- and you're trying to do all of this while trying to play your own game and play a heads-up game. It's fast out there. If there's a mistake, you know, the D-men look ridiculous."
The fact Pietrangelo typically avoids looking "ridiculous" is a credit not only to his talent, but also his development -- which had been scrutinized before this season because of his lofty draft slot.
"When you're a top pick, people expect all these things," Brewer said. "But you know, the guys are ready when they're ready and when the team feels they're ready. He is doing well. He's finding what's working for him out there and he's playing through the game and figuring out the types of players that he's playing against. He's a very heads-up player."
Brewer speaks from firsthand experience. Back in the 1997 Entry Draft, the Islanders made him their top pick (No. 5). In 1998-99, he played 63 games in New York as a 19-year old rookie and finished with 5 goals, 11 points and a minus-14 rating. He split the next season between the Islanders and the AHL's Lowell Lock Monsters -- and struggled for both.
The Islanders traded him to the Oilers at the 2000 Entry Draft and that's when he started to mature into a top defenseman. He broke through with 7 goals, 21 points and a plus-15 rating with the Oilers in 2000-01 and developed from there.
Like his former captain, Pietrangelo is familiar with not initially living up to expectations after being drafted so high. Not only did it take him a couple of seasons to stick with the Blues, but his critics also like to compare his learning curve to the trio selected ahead of him.
In 2008, Tampa Bay took sharpshooting star forward Steven Stamkos first, the Los Angeles Kings took defenseman Drew Doughty second and the Atlanta Thrashers selected defenseman Zach Bogosian third -- just one slot ahead of Pietrangelo.
All three established themselves in the NHL quicker than Pietrangelo, who tried not to think about that while honing his game in the OHL.
"You've just got to go out there and play hockey," Pietrangelo said. "Obviously what Steve's been able to do so far (in Tampa), it's pretty rare to see and he deserves all the (accolades) he's getting. At the same time, you can't think about that. You've just got to play and put that in the back of your mind. It is what it is now, and I'm here to play."
He was also ready to play in the NHL back in training camp, which was a key factor to his making the team, according to Armstrong.
"I'm not sure if it was maturity, but going back the last two years to play in the (WJC) and also getting some good experience last year with Barrie really helped," Armstrong said. "He got a chance to play in all kinds of different situations and develop his game, where we felt if he'd stayed in the NHL, he probably wouldn't have gotten into nearly as many of those situations. When he came back to us, he had two years of quality experience."
Before getting dealt, Johnson noticed that -- especially when Pietrangelo filled in after injuries sidelined Roman Polak, Carlo Colaiacavo and Barret Jackman.
"He knows that the coaches have confidence to put him out there," Johnson said at the time. "With the amount of ice time he's getting, you see that and when you know people have confidence in you it really helps your game. He's had a lot of growth as a player."
And now, thanks to Armstrong's recent dealings, it's time for the Blues to showcase it.
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