ST. LOUIS — In a league where franchise defensemen are the gold standard, the St. Louis Blues have one of the NHL's most valuable assets in Alex Pietrangelo.
Pietrangelo turns 22 today. His elite performance forces opposing teams to account for him every time he is on the ice.
"The second half of last season, he played with a target," Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong said of Pietrangelo, who wedged himself into Norris Trophy consideration by scoring 12 goals and 51 points. He played upwards of 25 minutes a night for a team that finished second overall in the league standings.
"Like a Nick Lidstrom, like a Ray Bourque, like Shea Weber, he's going to have that target now for the rest of his career so he's going to have to learn to protect himself," Armstrong said. "He's a player that when you play against the St. Louis Blues, he's circled.
"Their coaches will spend three or four minutes every night talking about that player. He's going to have to learn to deal with that, but that's not something I'm concerned he'll have trouble with."
The fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft has been groomed for this role and he embraces it.
"You kind of expect it," Pietrangelo said. "Obviously it's going to be a challenge, but you've got to accept that challenge and use it as motivation. The whole team's a target now after the performance we had last year. A lot of people know what we're capable of.
"You're going to get the extra hit or get the extra shove when you have the puck. But you've got to use it as a challenge and use it as motivation."
Already benefiting from a close relationship with Blues senior adviser and Hall of Fame defenseman Al MacInnis, Pietrangelo has more on-site help now with the addition of former Dallas Stars defensive standout Sergei Zubov.
Zubov has joined the Blues' front office as a consultant and Armstrong, who got to watch Zubov regularly while working in Dallas, sees a strong comparison.
"I said to Petro 'You've got Al MacInnis and Sergei Zubov at your disposal, that power play better be humming," Armstrong said. "He's a taller, lankier player, but (the best comparison) is Sergei Zubov. The ability to process things very quickly... that would be the closest to the full package.
"(Zubov) played 26 to 30 minutes a night, he played both ends of the special teams, he was a marked man and he had won a couple of Stanley Cups."
Pietrangelo wants to keep the learning curve moving quickly. He's added size and strength to better withstand the heavy banging around the net and in the corners and he is working on better body positioning.
"Obviously everybody can get better, I'm just trying to stay as consistent as I can here (and) continue working on my defensive game," he said. "I think that's a big part I want to continue to get better on, being able to play against other team's top lines on a consistent basis."
Pietrangelo's offensive skills have been evident from the moment he broke into the NHL at age 18. His ability to move pucks, elude defenders and create offense continues to improve.
Why have the point totals continued to climb for him?
"Just finding a way to get the puck to the net, I think that was the biggest thing for me," he said. "Not trying to make too many plays, keep it simple. I like to make plays, but at the same time we've got some pretty big, strong forwards up front.
"Sometimes just putting a puck to the net and letting them get a stick on it can be the best play."
Pietrangelo still enjoys being physical whenever necessary.
"If the opportunity's there, I'm not going to shy away from it," he said. "But a lot of times I think good body positioning and a good stick when the puck's there is almost a better play than trying to make the big hit and get yourself out of position.
"If I can make a play with my stick and advance the puck, get the team out of our zone, that's my first priority."
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at email@example.com or 239-2454.