Analyzing the St. Louis Blues Defence After Alex Pietrangelo

Alex Pietrangelo
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There weren’t many defencemen at the level of Alex Pietrangelo during his time in the St. Louis Blues defence. Top-five in Norris voting three times. NHL All-Star three times. Reliable double-digit goal scorer. +77 for his career. Leader. Captain.

So unless Roman Josi, John Carlson, or Victor Hedman were available this offseason (they weren’t), the Blues weren’t going to find a one-for-one replacement for the production Pietrangelo is taking to Vegas.

NHL free agent frenzy

Now that we’ve accepted that fact, what the Blues did do was sign Boston Bruins defenceman Torey Krug to a seven-year deal worth $6.5 million per season, while Blues GM Doug Armstrong and now-Arizona Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong helped assemble a stockade of defensive prospects over the years that could help close the gap between Alex Pietrangelo and Krug. Let’s take a look at the state of the Blues defence going forward.

Colton Parayko

It’s time for Colton Parayko to step up. Not just to satisfy the critics, but also because he’s now the de facto #1 defenceman on the team.

But is he worthy of it? Statistical analyst JFresh was asked that recently. While he feels Parayko is stronger defensively than Pietrangelo, he questions whether Parayko can make up for Pietrangelo’s offensive production. Parayko’s highest point total in a season is 35, which he hit four and three years ago respectively. Pietrangelo’s highest point total was 54 in 2017-18, and was on pace to match or eclipse that total in 2019-20, had the pandemic not put an early end to the regular season. Parayko has a big slap shot but hasn’t used it as much as Pietrangelo in recent seasons. Alex Pietrangelo had a 225-to-162 shots advantage last season. Parayko will need to use that big shot more often going forward if he’s will be tasked with filling some of Pietrangelo’s offensive void.

One thing JFresh did suggest was to have Parayko be paired with an offensive-minded left-handed defenceman. There are two obvious options, starting with…

Torey Krug

We’ve certainly talked about the Krug signing on the Last Word on Hockey. If we compare Krug’s analytics to Pietrangelo‘s, one might get the idea that Krug is Pietrangelo-lite. One big difference is Pietrangelo is often matched up against the opponent’s best lineups. In Boston, Krug was a second-pairing defenceman, and his quality-of-competition (QoC) of 47 percent over the last three seasons reflects that. 

Another is the way Krug and Pietrangelo get their points. Krug hit double digits in goals just once in the last five years: a 14 goal outburst in 2017-18. Krug gets assists by being a quality puck mover and a power-play specialist. A steady career CORSI For % of 54.9 percent backs that reputation, and is higher than Pietrangelo’s 52.6 percent rating. 

One similarity you might not expect is that Krug isn’t too much of a downgrade defensively from Alex Pietrangelo. If you look at the xGA graph in the two links above, Krug’s xGA isn’t markedly lower than Pietrangelo’s. 

Maybe the offensive-minded Krug would be an ideal pair for Parayko. But some Blues fans might be calling for…

Vince Dunn

Vince Dunn is a divisive figure among Blues fans. Analytics loves him and many Blues fans use that to back an idea that it’s time for Dunn to have a bigger role. Others note his defensive lapses, highlighted by questionable positioning that led to Vancouver Canucks goals in the 2020 playoffs. 

Dunn’s detractors (even the ones not savvy on analytics) will point out his 9 percent QoC in the first link, then point to those defensive lapses as a possible answer to why he hasn’t been trusted with higher-pairing minutes. 

And yet, Dunn’s +/- is +30 in his career. Is that due to his low quality of competition (QoC)? Or is it that maybe, he’s a diamond in the rough that deserves better than third-pairing minutes?

Few answers and lots of questions with Dunn, who remains a restricted free agent at the time of this writing. Speaking of questions…

Justin Faulk

Did we see the real Justin Faulk during the playoffs? His one goal, no assist stat line doesn’t scream “breakout” at first. But in nine playoff games, he was a +0 on a team that was -23 collectively. His 51.6 CORSI For % was better than regulars like Sammy Blais, Oskar Sundqvist, and Zach Sanford.

Of course, everything is relative, and we’re talking about those numbers as an improvement over a challenging 2019-20 where head coach Craig Berube struggled to find a fit for the RHD on a team with two strong RHDs. His performance last season makes him considered to be among the worst contracts in the NHL

So was last year the real Justin Faulk, or will we see the Faulk that preceded him in Carolina? In three seasons before arriving in St. Louis, Faulk pumped over 200 shots each season. Last season? 147. In Carolina, he often played top-four minutes. In St. Louis, he bounced from pairing to pairing and played fewer minutes. 

With Alex Pietrangelo gone, Faulk will be expected to be a top-four defenceman on this team, likely in the 2nd pairing with Krug (who played well with Faulk in a second pairing for Team USA during the 2015 World Championship) or Marco Scandella.

It’s just about fair to say that an average or above-average performance by Faulk in 2021 makes him a bounceback candidate, too.

The Other Veterans

It took just 11 games in a Blues uniform for Armstrong to ink Scandella to a 4-year extension worth $3.275 million per season. He showed instant chemistry with Parayko and appeared to be just what the Blues needed after Jay Bouwmeester‘s frightening cardiac issue in Anaheim. 

But in nine playoff games, he registered no points and a -3. He has registered just one point in 20 games with the Blues, regular season or playoffs. Analytics show Scandella’s strength is in his defence, and at the age of 29, he’s expected to fill the “steady veteran” role Bouwmeester left behind. However, with the Blues facing some difficult contract decisions next offseason with Parayko, Jaden Schwartz, and Jordan Binnington, one has to wonder if Scandella is long for this team, and if he and his contract ends up being expansion draft bait for Seattle or just plain trade bait.

Another LHD is Carl Gunnarsson, who’s been a mainstay for the Blues since he was acquired for the mercurial Roman Polak in 2014-15. He’s never played a full 82 games in his career due to injuries and when he has played, his WAR (Evolving Hockey‘s Wins Above Replacement) dived 1.8 to 1.3 to -0.4 in each of the last three seasons. With one year left on his contract and prospects ready and waiting, we could be looking at Gunnarsson’s last season as a Blue.

Also possibly facing UFA at the end of the coming season is Robert Bortuzzo. Acquired in a deal that sent Ian Cole to Pittsburgh the same year the Blues got Gunnarsson, Bortuzzo has played a mostly sixth/seventh physical defenceman role (save for 72 games in 2017-18). Evolving Hockey has Bortuzzo at or slightly above replacement throughout his tenure, but with more exciting options coming up from the system and one year left as well, Bortuzzo could walk alongside Gunnarsson into UFA.

The Youngsters

2020 Hobey Baker Award winner Scott Perunovich is inked to an entry-level deal for the next two seasons, with bonuses that could have him earning as much as $1.2 million. No other prospect has that kind of deal, and Blues fans may be expecting to see Perunovich sooner than later. While that could be the case, The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford notes that, with a short schedule and the presence of Bortuzzo/Gunnarsson, the Blues may opt to get Perunovich time in Springfield this season instead.

He also notes Perunovich has no problem playing on the right side (he’s a left-handed defenceman), which could alleviate any roster-blocking issues from Krug/Dunn/Scandella. In his December 4th mailbag, Rutherford notes Perunovich primarily played on the right side.

Another LHD that the Blues seem keen on is Niko Mikkola. He’s a defence-first defenceman with size (6’4, 185 pounds) and physicality, and has impressed in limited NHL action. He might be ready for a Gunnarsson/Bortuzzo type role soon but will need some breaks to make it into the big club, at least in 2021. 

Other young options that could compete for playing time in the next year or two are Mitch Reinke and Tyler Tucker. The Blues signed Reinke out of Michigan Tech two years ago, and he impressed immediately in the AHL. However, injuries helped bring his production down last season. He’ll be 25 in February, so the clock’s ticking. Tucker was a 7th round pick in 2018, but all he does is rack up points in the OHL. He also racks up some PIMs as a physical 6’2, 205-pound defender. He checks a lot of boxes for scouts and at 20 years old, will be an intriguing prospect to watch.

Conclusion

There is no one replacement for Alex Pietrangelo with the Blues. However, the overall defensive depth is deep and capable, with potential for improvements from just about everyone. It’ll take multiple players stepping up to fill the hole Alex Pietrangelo leaves behind. But there’s some quality to the Blues quantity at defence, and together they may be able to absorb the blow of losing their captain and best defenceman.

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