The NHL is a copycat league. Every team tries to duplicate the specific successes of recent Cup winners. Some things are irreproducible, though. Not just any team can assemble a top line like Tampa’s, or recapture the voodoo magic of St. Louis, or, uh, “have Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby.” What teams can do, which is every bit as important to winning, is seek out that true No. 1 workhorse blueliner, who’ll play shutdown hockey against top lines, eat up huge minutes in the postseason when rotations tighten, and hell, set up and score a bunch of goals too. The problem is there just aren’t very many of these guys. If you want one and haven’t drafted them, you’re going to pay. The Vegas Golden Knights are paying, but they finally got their man in Alex Pietrangelo.
Pietrangelo, the star defenseman and longtime Blues captain, inked a seven-year, $61.6 million deal with Vegas Monday night. That’s not as much term or money as St. Louis reportedly offered, but Vegas’s deal crucially includes buyout-proof bonuses in the back end, and a full no-movement clause—both important to a 30-year-old. Yeah, maybe the $8.8M AAV deal will be an albatross come 2025 or so, but defenders tend to age a little better than forwards, and anyway, that’s just the price of getting a guy like Pietrangelo now, for a team that’s so close, and has craved an elite defenseman since losing out on Erik Karlsson two years ago.
Just as important to Vegas as signing Pietrangelo was when they signed him. The Knights were hard up against the salary cap even after moving Paul Stastny, and simply didn’t (and still don’t! See next parenthetical) have enough space to add Pietrangelo. But the signing didn’t get done until after the close of the NHL’s business day, which means, as far as the league is concerned, it hasn’t happened yet, and won’t happen until the league office opens for business this morning. What that means in practical terms is that the Golden Knights had all evening and night to clear the cap space needed, and what do you know?—there goes Nate Schmidt, and his $5.95M cap hit, off to Vancouver for a draft pick. (Even after trading Schmidt, adding Pietrangelo puts Vegas over next season’s cap, but, vitally, under the offseason cap, which carries a 10 percent buffer. They have until the season starts to trim some more dollars, and are expected to do so by moving Alec Martinez or, more desirably, Marc-Andre Fleury, if they can find any takers.)
So what does Pietrangelo bring Vegas? Honestly, everything. He’s a possession-controller who plays his best at 5-on-5, but also plays on the kill and quarterbacks the power play. He was second in the league among defensemen with 16 goals in 70 games last season, to go with 36 assists. He’s insanely durable, missing just 34 games in 10 full NHL seasons, and averaging 24:38 a night—and 27:03 in the postseason. That alone would be valuable, but to do it in games’ toughest defensive minutes, and to excel at driving play the other way, makes him the rare player capable of locking down entire playoff games at a time. In other words, Vegas hopes, looking at recent Cup-winning warhorses, their Hedman, their Carlson, their Letang, their … Pietrangelo.
I could show you a highlight reel, but instead I’ll show you a single shift. Keep an eye on Pietrangelo (No. 27) throughout this sequence from 2019. He’s patrolling the point. He’s between the circles, making sure no one else can be. He’s keeping the goalmouth clear. He’s between the puck and the net for each and every Boston shot, even though they come from assorted angles. He’s everywhere, even though it’s his 26th playoff game of a long, long season and he should be absolutely gassed, and, oh, he skates back up to put himself in position to score the eventual Cup-winning goal.
Pietrangelo’s addition also has the knock-on effect of giving the Knights two legit defensive units. Shea Theodore, 25, might be knocking on the door of stardom, but he’s not an Alex Pietrangelo. He’s going to thrive not facing opponents’ top scoring lines, and Vegas instantly becomes that much deeper at both ends of the ice.
Just as every team craves a workhorse D, two good-to-great defensive units might be the new requirement for postseason success. The Western Conference–winning Stars already have it with pairings led by John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen. The other two West final four teams have upgraded their bluelines, the Canucks by trading for Schmidt and the Avalanche by trading for Devon Toews and soon adding Bowen Byram to what might be the league’s deepest group. Even the Blues, after losing Pietrangelo, made sure they won’t fall off too much by signing Torey Krug. Good acquisitions all around, but if defense is the new arms race in hockey, the Vegas Golden Knights landed the biggest, baddest weapon of all, and might very well be the favorites out of the West next year.