The second it was reported that contract talks between the St. Louis Blues and Alex Pietrangelo broke off, it was inevitable that he would be linked to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Beyond the fact that every player that is even mildly available is linked to the Leafs at one point or another, he’s also an Ontario boy and happens to be a right-handed defenseman. The Leafs, of course, desperately need a right-handed defenseman.
This has led to endless speculation: How much would it take to lure him to Toronto? Who would need to be traded to clear the cap space? Would he take a sweetheart deal to come home?
Before we even get into these questions, though, I think the first few are a bit more simple: What type of player is Alex Pietrangelo? Is he the right fit for this Leafs team?
There is no question that Pietrangelo is a productive workhorse. Over the past three seasons combined, he’s scored the fourth-most goals among defensemen and is 10th in total points (seventh in total even-strength points, 15th in power-play points). His 24:42 time on ice average over that time ranks ninth as well. He is tied with teammate Colton Parayko for 14th in even-strength time on ice per game over that span.
The emergence of Parayko, I believe, is likely a primary reason the Blues are playing hardball with their captain. When the Blues won the Cup, it was Parayko, alongside Jay Bouwmeester, who took the tough assignments — not Alex Pietrangelo.
In the Cup finals, it was Parayko who played over 50 minutes head-to-head against the Patrice Bergeron line at even strength. Pietrangelo matched up against the David Krejci line (about 45 minutes against them).
Against San Jose, Parayko drew the Logan Couture line, while Pietrangelo went up against the Tomas Hertl line.
Against Dallas, Parayko played against Jamie Benn and Alex Radulov, while Pietrangelo took on the assignment of Jason Dickinson and Mats Zuccarello.
In the first round against the Jets, Parayko took the brunt of the Mark Scheifele line, while Pietrangelo matched up against the Bryan Little line (all stats according to Natural Stat Trick).
Probably not surprising when you consider the above factors, Pietrangelo was third among Blues defensemen in even-strength time on ice per game over the championship playoff run.
This past season, Pietrangelo split time with Justin Faulk and Carl Gunnarsson, while Parayko again paired with Jay Bouwmeester on the shutdown pairing. In fact, according to Hockey Reference, Pietrangelo’s offensive-zone faceoff start percentage has quietly crept up four years in a row, while Parayko’s defensive-zone starts have continued to climb up over the past few seasons. To be clear, it’s not as if Pietrangelo is or needs to be completely sheltered, but it’s also apparent that when you dig into the St. Louis Blues and who their shutdown pairing is, Pietrangelo is not on it.
From the Leafs perspective, though, the question isn’t whether he’s doing it right now; it’s whether he can do it, and to what level? A few years ago, Pietrangelo was in that more direct shutdown role with Jay Bouwmeester – who is no slouch – and they were below water (the 50% mark) in shot rates, scoring chances, and expected goals, although they were in the positive of goal share at 5v5 (by 4). That was years ago before Parayko began sliding into the heavy-minutes role.
Earlier this season, Sean Tierney took a look at Pietrangelo’s season and argued he was a legit Norris Trophy candidate. You can definitely make that case as his overall impact was amazing. I’m certainly not here to argue against Sean or his point that Pietrangelo had a spectacular season:
That article also notes — with some great examples — Pietrangelo’s ability to break out and highlights his biggest strength – controlling both blue lines, with his reach to break up entries, hockey sense, and puck handling to make plays in the offensive zone. The ice tilted heavily when he was on the ice as he controlled the majority of shot quality. His Goals Above Replacement was also eye-popping.
There’s also another thing Tierney notes, though, which is that Pietrangelo plays on a defensive, grinding team. He could transition smoothly – Jake Muzzin hasn’t had a problem – but it’s still an adjustment worth recognizing and a system that helps Pietrangelo’s results defensively.
Ultimately, Pietrangelo is a big-minute defenseman who does his damage on the offensive side of the ice and on the power play. Is that the type of defenseman the Leafs, already tight to the cap, really need as he turns 31 (in January) and expects to be paid huge money?
They already have Morgan Rielly, who is a season removed from leading all defenseman in goals and who was productive for the first month and change of the season until he was moved off of the top power-play unit. When he was put back there in the play-in round, he was more than adequate, too.
In fact, it’s fair to suggest Rielly has been more productive (at 5v5) over the past three seasons:
Sometimes it is taken for granted in this market, but Rielly’s speed is truly dynamic and makes him extremely dangerous offensively.
Now, the point here isn’t to compare Rielly and Pietrangelo. I’d still argue Pietrangelo is more well-rounded. But there is an underlying point here, and it’s simple: They play similar roles — big minutes, offensively inclined, with top power-play unit opportunity. We already saw a bit of a tug of war in this department last year between Tyson Barrie and Morgan Rielly. They each only thrived while manning the top unit.
Their first question on defense is whether the Leafs believe in a Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl shutdown pairing. If they would like to bump Holl down, they need to find Muzzin a shutdown partner. That would be the number one priority. If they do believe in that pairing, they need to find Morgan Rielly a partner who can cover for him on defense so that he can run wild offensively.
Ideally, they add some sort of depth defenseman as well so that their first injury replacement isn’t a choice between an inexperienced young player and Martin Marincin.
Alex Pietrangelo is really good. He would make any team better, including the Leafs. But when the season ended, nobody was thinking, “If only the Leafs had another really good offensive defenseman, and they should sacrifice more depth as well as their salary cap structure to do it.”
If you squint your eyes and imagine some scenario where Pietrangelo doesn’t sign a long-term deal in a COVID market, he takes a sweetheart deal to play for his hometown in these uncertain times (staying close to home in case the season goes off the rails again), all the while giving himself the option to hit free agency again at a time when he can still command one more long term, expensive contract? Sure. No team in its right mind would say no to that.
But when it comes to moving heaven and earth in order to fit Pietrangelo into the salary cap structure of the team, while still having to fill out the rest of their roster with real NHL depth around a collection of expensive stars? I think the Leafs can use their resources in other ways to improve their roster overall.