The St. Louis Blues seem to have lucked out during the 2008 NHL entry draft. They had the fourth-overall selection that year, and were able to pick Alex Pietrangelo from the Niagara IceDogs of the OHL. It’s not very often that you can say that a team “lucked out” with a top-five pick, but the Blues hit a grand slam while it can be argued that at least one team that passed over Pietrangelo regrets doing so.
2008 was a great year for defensemen. 10 of the top 30 selections played on the blue line, and four of the top five picks were defenders. Steven Stamkos is clearly the class of the draft and has more goals or points than anyone else, but the four guys that went after him all man the points.
Drew Doughty was selected second by the Los Angeles Kings, while Zach Bogosian went to the Atlanta Thrashers (now the Winnipeg Jets) at No. 3. While the Kings seem to have made a sound selection in Doughty, the same can’t be said for the now defunct Thrashers, who passed on Pietrangelo and a handful of other defensemen that have panned out better than Bogosian has.
Other defensive studs that went in the first round in 2008 include Erik Karlsson (15th overall to the Ottawa Senators), John Carlson (27th overall to the Washington Capitals) and Luke Schenn (No. 5 to the Toronto Maple Leafs).
If the ’08 class left something to be desired from a talent perspective, Pietrangelo standing out above his peers might not be as special. This particular crop of defensemen is top-notch though, and the 24-year-old still stands tall compared to his contemporaries.
From a raw point production standpoint, Pietrangelo ranks third among ’08 defensemen in scoring, but that stat is a bit misleading. Doughty has 214 points in 423 career games. Karlsson has 218 points in 292 contests.
Pietrangelo has managed 162 points in just 281 games. While it’s highly unlikely that he’ll ever catch Karlsson in terms of offensive production, plays like this elevate Pietrangelo to another level entirely.
Karlsson is good for activating as a fourth forward for the Senators, but he can’t hold a defensive candle to Pietrangelo. Ottawa gives Karlsson offensive-zone starts 54.4% of the time according to BehindTheNet.ca. That’s tops on the team among defensemen that have played more than 30 games this season.
Pietrangelo starts in the offensive zone 50.3% of the time, showing that head coach Ken Hitchcock has a bit more faith in the Blue. This leads to what is most probably the most impressive thing about the 24-year-old defender: Despite playing up against some tough competition and being charged with shutting the opposition down, he still manages to produce offense at a high level.
Sticking with Karlsson as our go-to comparison for now, consider this: Karlsson’s quality-of-competition corsi stands at 0.681 on the year. That means that, on average, Karlsson isn’t butting up against particularly strong players. Meanwhile in St. Louis, Pietrangelo leads the team with a 1.824 quality-of-competition corsi.
If advanced stats aren’t your thing, perhaps Hitchcock’s evaluation of his key defenseman back in 2012 will stick with you. He had this to say, according to Craig Custance of ESPN (subscription required):
The thing that’s relevant for him, if you’re describing a defenseman, you’re talking about a guy who collects points, plays against the other team’s best players and kill penalties. That’s what he does. He QBs the No. 1 unit on the power play, plays against the other teams’ best players. He kills a minute-plus of every penalty kill. What more can you ask for? He does that. He’s not protected. Nobody protects him. That’s what he does. If you’re looking for a legitimate defenseman, then to me, that’s what this guy is. He’s the word ‘defenseman.’ He’s not an ‘offenseman.’ He’s a complete player.
When the coach made those comments, it was considered a shot across the bow of Karlsson and the Senators. Comparing the two only seems natural considering that they were both picked in the same draft year, but at this juncture it seems clear who the better all-around defender is.
The other player that Pietrangelo is undoubtedly tethered to due to draft year is the aforementioned Doughty. Stacking those two up side-by-side and looking at the results in an interesting practice. There’s no question that the current King is a strong three-zone player. It’s widely appreciated that he’d be capable of producing 60-plus points from the blue line if he wanted, but he adheres to LA’s system and the team is better for it.
Would the Kings go back and select Pietrangelo if they could though? It’s impossible to know for sure, but the Stanley Cup win with Doughty at the helm makes that scenario an unlikely one. Still, Pietrangelo appears in the NHL’s top-30 when it comes to facing off against tougher competition.
Doughty, on the other hand, is nowhere to be found.
This is mostly just an exercise in examination. Sometimes it can be tough to quantify exactly how valuable a player is, but the fact that Pietrangelo just posted his fourth-consecutive 40-point season (2013 prorates to that) despite playing against some of the toughest competition in the league speaks volumes about his value as a player.