For the past eleven seasons a single player has essentially monopolized one of the most prestigious awards in the NHL. In a span where the Hart Memorial Trophy was claimed by ten separate players and the Vezina Trophy was distributed amongst seven different goalies this single player won the James Norris Memorial Trophy seven times. Of course the player I speak of is Nicklas Lidstrom.
But that decade long span of positional dominance has come to a close as Lidstrom has decided to hang up his skates, leaving a fresh batch of defensemen to battle it out for the right to claim his throne atop Mount Blue Line.
Of course there are the obvious choices, such as Zdeno Chara who has been nominated four times in the past five seasons for the Norris, winning once, as well as Shea Weber who has seen his name amongst the finalists over the past two seasons. Then there is the newcomer Erik Karlsson who won the award this past season at the age of 21. Any of these three defensemen would be viable candidates to take over Lidstrom’s role as the NHL’s premier defenseman but dare I say that none of them will? Is there someone else out there who is on the brink of blue line stardom? There definitely is and he goes by the name of Alex Pietrangelo.
If you haven’t come across that name I wouldn’t worry, it says more about how far under the radar the St. Louis Blues star defenseman has flown than about your hockey knowledge, but don’t worry, all of that is about to come to an abrupt end as Pietrangelo is on the verge of becoming one of the elite defenseman in the NHL at the age of 22.
For those who have witnessed Pietrangelo’s brilliance it should come as no surprise that he is already being mentioned as one of the top defensemen in the entire league. In just his second season in the NHL he anchored a Blues defense that led the league in goals against (1.89) as well as shots against per game (26.7). At an age where most defenseman are still attempting to adapt to the speed of the NHL Pietrangelo was averaging 24 minutes and 43 seconds of ice time per game, good for 16th amongst NHL defensemen, as well as averaging 32.9 shifts per game which topped NHL defensemen.
Not only was he the cornerstone of the Blues defensive dominance, he was amongst the league leaders in several offensive categories as well. His +16 rating was good enough for a top 20 finish amongst defensemen and his 51 points ranked him 5th. But perhaps where he excelled the most was on the power play.
His six power play goals were seventh amongst defensemen while his 18 assists were good for fourth. Based on those stats you would assume that he received an abundance of power play ice time but in actuality he ranked outside of the top 30 in that department, making his production that much more impressive.
Let me remind you, this kind of production is coming from a 22 year old defenseman who is just three years removed from playing in the OHL. Most analysts agree that he is nowhere near reaching his ceiling just yet. They are saying that he still has room to grow if that’s even possible. If that’s the case then how good can Pietrangelo be? Could he one day win the Norris Trophy? It’s a real possibility but it won’t come without its challenges.
If there is one thing that will keep Pietrangelo away from the Norris Trophy it will be his lack of gaudy offensive stats. I realize that his 51 points in 2011-2012 is nothing scoff at, it actually ranks him fifth among defensemen, but in the current Norris landscape that total is not going to cut it.
Since the 2004-2005 season was lost to a lockout the only defensemen to capture the Norris trophy while accumulating less than 55 points in their award winning season was Zdeno Chara who tallied 50 points in 2008-2009. In fact, only two times in the past seven seasons has the Norris winner not been among the top two point producing defensemen in the NHL (Chara in 2008-2009 and Nicklas Lidstrom in 2006-2007).
Perhaps no season has exemplified this shift towards offensive defensemen than the previous one. Amongst the three finalists for the trophy were two well-rounded defensemen in Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara and one offensive dynamo in Erik Karlsson. In the end the Professional Hockey Writer’s Association couldn’t resist Karlsson’s 78 point season and handed the trophy over to a defenseman who was considered to be a liability in his own teams end.
The good news for Pietrangelo is that when it comes to sheer talent and skill he is more than capable of producing the outrageous numbers that are necessary in order to compete with the likes of Karlsson for the Norris trophy. The bad news is that it is highly unlikely that he will be given the opportunity to accrue those kinds of stats for several reasons.
The most notable of those reasons is his role on the penalty kill. Of the 2003 minutes he played this past season 260 of those were spent on the penalty kill, roughly accounting for 13% of his ice time. When you compare that to Karlsson who spent a total of 45 minutes or 5% of his ice time on the PK you begin to see the disadvantage that Pietrangelo is up against.
The other glaring disadvantage facing Pietrangelo is the style of play that he is attached to with the Blues. Ken Hitchcock’s defensive system relies heavily on the blue line to maintain their positioning and execute their defensive responsibilities which tends to limit the opportunities to join the attack for the defensemen. In fact the only defenseman to post more than 55 points under Hitchcock was Sergei Zubov in the 1997-1998 season when he tallied 57 points with the Dallas Stars.
With all of that being said it’s hard not to imagine Pietrangelo competing with the likes of Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara and Erik Karlsson for the Norris Trophy in the near future. Although the offensive side of the game seems to garner the most attention it’s only a matter of time before the importance of the all-around defenseman is magnified once again. When that occurs Pietrangelo will be the first in line to claim the prestigious Norris Trophy and join the ranks of Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis as the only Blues to win the award.
Adam is based out of White Bear Lake, MN and covers the Minnesota Wild for THW.