NASHVILLE – Not too long ago, defensemen that were 22 years old and just breaking into the league weren’t relied upon to be anchors, per se, of a blueline. Times have changed, for the better, in the NHL. One team that has benefitted from the rapid maturation for defensemen is St. Louis, where youngsters Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo are leading the way.
When GM Doug Armstrong acquired Shattenkirk (and Chris Stewart) from Colorado last February in exchange for an underachieving Erik Johnson, they obtained a young blueliner that was drenched with potential. So far this season, Shattenkirk has put that potential on full display due to his speedy maturation.
“I feel a little more confident and poised out there. For me it’s a matter of playing more games and feeling better game in and game out,” said Shattenkirk, who has valued playing alongside veteran Barrett Jackman this season.
“There hasn’t been anything different I’ve done preparation wise, but playing with Jackman has been great for me. He has kind of been my shoulder to lean on and is someone I can talk things through with. Every shift to be able to talk to him and hash things out, it slowly (rubs off on you) and forms you into a better player.”
Shattenkirk, a 2007 first-round pick with Colorado, has seen a spike in playing time in his second full NHL season (21:28 average TOI this year; 19:50 last year). He credits the coaching staff as a big reason why he has fit in well in his first calendar year with the Blues.
“From Day 1 it was an easy transition,” Shattenkirk said. “It was almost like they let me play and felt me out, and coached me from there, which I think was nice. I wasn’t worrying too much about systems or anything like that. I’ve done a lot of work with Brad Shaw. I think he’s done tremendous things with my game.”
The Blues’ one-two punch on defense is indicative of what the Blues’ future has in store. Shattenkirk and Pietrangelo may not be paired together, but they are playing a big role on the Central Division contender.
“(Pietrangelo) comes in as a strong defensive player learning how to play offense, while Shattenkirk is an offensive player learning how to play defense. Both are trying to grow their games and mature, but are coming from different angles,” head coach Ken Hitchcock said.
Shattenkirk, 23, and Pietrangelo, 22, lead the Blues in total ice-time and play in all situations on a defense corps that features established veterans like Jackman, Carlo Colaiacovo and Roman Polak.
“It’s a unique position,” Hitchcock said. “They’re able to work through their mistakes, kind of the way (Ryan) Suter and (Shea) Weber did. I remember when we used to try to take advantage of Suter. Now look at him; he takes advantage of you every shift. I think it’s the same thing as Shatty and Petro. They were players that teams could take advantage of a year ago, but not very much anymore.
“I just find it amazing that players can be in the position that they’re in. Ten years ago you used to be 26, 27, 28 years of age before you were a good defenseman. Now guys are 22 and you’re playing them minimum 20 minutes a night.”
Pietrangelo leads Blues defensemen with 25 points in 50 games, while Shattenkirk is a close second with 23 points. Those numbers aren’t close to leading the league among defensemen, but the young duo brings a lot of offensive ability and potential to the table.
“They are dynamic and what you need in the new NHL,” Blues forward and captain David Backes said. “You can’t just have stay-at-home defensemen that try to shut down the opposition. It’s tough to create anything unless you have those puck-moving defensemen that can also join the play. The two of them, when they’re on the offensive side it’s like having a fourth forward out there.”
At their age, Shattenkirk and Pietrangelo should benefit down the road from being the anchors of a blueline on a young Blues team that believes they can make a lot of noise come playoff time.
“We know what our role is and we know what we have to bring as an offensive aspect to the blueline,” Shattenkirk said of he and Pietrangelo. “Coach Hitch says to us that he wants us to play like we’re 400-game players. He expects that out of us, he expects us to play like mature veterans. That forces us to step up and accept a little more responsibility than a normal younger player would have.”
If the Blues want to continue to rise to an elite level in the Western Conference and NHL, Shattenkirk and Pietrangelo will be vital contributors.
“Normally you expect defensemen to be a little slower developing,” Backes said, “but their first year was good, they’re better this year and their ceilings are endless.”
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