ST. LOUIS -- NHL intellectuals, including Blues Hall of Famer Al MacInnis, tell you a young defenseman needs 200 games of experience in the league before he shows his true colors. Alex Pietrangelo has played in only 48. But NHL intellectuals can't account for celestial intervention.
"It looks like he's been touched by a wand by God," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said.
Christmas comes but once a year, but Pietrangelo has been coming since the fall of 2008. Still just 20 years old, still a relative rookie -- despite an absurd NHL technicality that says otherwise -- the native of King City, Ontario, has been gaining boosters such as Babcock throughout the land.
Frustrated Blues fans have clamored for "Petro" the past three winters ever since the team made him its first choice and the fourth overall pick in the 2008 entry draft. They were teased for two training camps, frustrated by his infrequent appearances once the seasons began, flabbergasted by re-assignments.
They called talk shows, wrote to newspapers, blogged on websites -- they insisted the King City Kid should be here, period. It creates an interesting debate.
After two sampling NHL seasons that added up to 17 games, Pietrangelo has stepped into his first full ride the way a sea lion pup slides into the ocean for his first swim, like a natural.
With a goal and an assist in the Blues' 4-2 win at Atlanta on Tuesday, Pietrangelo has four goals and 13 assists in 31 starts. He has become a fixture on the right point of the power play with Erik Johnson, the team's No. 1 pick in 2007, playing on the second unit.
No doubt, many of the Pietrangelo pleaders are running around with self-satisfied expressions these days, shouting "I told you so" every chance they get. It gives one pause. Were they right? Could Pietrangelo have been doing this all along?
"I guess the best answer would be, 'You never really know.' I wasn't here as long as I am right now," Pietrangelo said. "I couldn't tell you."
Blues coach Davis Payne didn't see much of Pietrangelo before now. There were snippets of the young defenseman in action during training camp in 2009, and a few games otherwise. Payne wasn't with the parent club at that point; he was coaching the Peoria Rivermen.
"I think the logical answer to the question is to say, 'No,"' " Payne said. "Because you expect an athlete to improve physically, to improve mentally, to take experiences and make himself a better player. And I think Petro is that type of guy.
"I think every year, even perhaps every month, he has gotten better. To see that from a young guy, especially from a 'D-man,' is a great thing. There's a lot of things that go on in this league. The reads are very, very subtle and for him to go from Day One of this year to where he is now is impressive."
"So, to answer the question, I think you have to assume the experiences and pictures he got from the past couple of years had to be invaluable to him."
It's an interesting discussion for the organization, a maze that always leads back to the same point. That management took time with Pietrangelo, introduced him in small increments, made him return to juniors for more maturing, might be the operative factor in his accomplished performance.
Yet, the better the backliner plays, the less credit management will get for patience, the more the "I told you so" card gets played. That's OK. The Blues have what they wanted most out of the process -- a special player, one who figures to be a foundation piece for many years to come.
"For a kid who is 20, he has pretty surprising patience with the puck, which is something you just don't see," said Blues goaltender Ty Conklin, 34, who has spent seasons in the close company of elite NHL defensemen like Sergei Gonchar and Nicklas Lidstrom.
"You see skilled guys, but some guys just do hard things and they don't make them look that hard. Petro does that. He makes difficult plays look pretty routine."
So, what's the verdict; could he have been here last year? "I don't know," Conklin said. "I just don't know. I can't even imagine playing at this level at his age, period. He's pretty special."
The truth is, all hockey players are not born equal. They mature and develop at different paces. Bobby Orr, considered by many to be the greatest player in NHL history, had 13 goals and 41 points his first season as an NHL defenseman.
Times were different in that 1966-67 season, and Orr would have a lot to do with changing them. His 41 points in 61 games made him the third leading scorer on his Boston Bruins team. Three seasons later, Orr blew up the stay-at-home template for defensemen altogether by getting 33 goals and 120 points.
That's Bobby Orr. Chris Pronger, on the other hand, did not reach double figures in goals or collect as many as 35 points until his fourth NHL season. They are two different types of players. Their games had two different gestation periods. One is in the Hall of Fame, the other will be.
For that matter, the Blues need not look further than their own roster to confirm NHL defensemen blossom in their own time frame. The No. 1 pick overall in 2007, Johnson was not brought along slowly; he was needed immediately. He came into the NHL from his junior semester of college hockey. His development was stunted by a serious knee injury, and he is still finding his best form.
At the ripe old age of 22, in his third full season, Johnson has become a steady defender, a leader in minutes. He has not yet had the offensive impact many predict he can. Johnson had 10 goals and 39 points last season; he has two goals and nine assists thus far in 2010-11.
Pietrangelo clearly has been more influential on offense, while improving his play reliability at the opposite end. Both players are in the learning laboratory, both have spectacular tools with which to work. Each is absorbing and arriving in a different manner.
For Pietrangelo, there is no question that experiences away from the Blues the past two years have helped him. He played in an All-Star atmosphere for a Team Canada team that lost to the United States in the finals of the 2010 World Junior Hockey Championships. Pietrangelo had 12 points and was plus-9 in six games during the tournament.
He played in a highly charged atmosphere during the Ontario Hockey League Championship Series last spring, advancing to the J. Ross Robertson Cup finals with the Barrie Colts. The time was well spent.
"I think going as far as I did with Barrie last season was a pretty good opportunity to be around some pretty elite players and play," Pietrangelo said. "I think everybody knows what the World Juniors is all about, so if you put all of that together, it goes a long way."
Babcock said: "He's got great vision. He sees the ice. ... The ball is in his court ... and it looks like he's got things going."
Pietrangelo has 152 games to play before the biological clock on his development as an NHL defenseman runs out. It looks like he might arrive ahead of schedule.