ST. LOUIS -- When Doug Armstrong was finally able to pull the trigger on the blockbuster trade that brought Jay Bouwmeester to St. Louis, the Blues' general manager already had visions of a foundation.
Armstrong saw a match that he thought could develop into one of the top defensive pairings in the NHL.
Armstrong and the Blues already had Alex Pietrangelo, the fourth player selected at the 2008 NHL Draft. The Florida Panthers made Bouwmeester the third pick in 2002.
But for Bouwmeester, who will turn 30 Friday, the journey to St. Louis came with much hype but few results, at least from a team perspective. The numbers were good; he averaged 14 goals his final three seasons in Florida and 42 points over the last four seasons. But the Panthers failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of his six seasons in the Sunshine State.
Bouwmeester was able to parlay the final three years of his Panthers career into a five-year contract with the Calgary Flames in 2008 after the Flames ironically acquired Bouwmeester's negotiating rights for the rights to current Blues teammate Jordan Leopold and a third-round pick.
More hype was bestowed upon Bouwmeester's shoulders, but the Flames were left out of the postseason in each of his three full seasons. A dip in scoring left the Edmonton native open to public scrutiny. Bouwmeester scored a total of 19 goals the past four seasons while averaging 26 points.
"I think you look at the team scoring in Calgary wasn't great," Armstrong said. "I think he might have been a product of the environment. Now did he create the environment, I don't know."
Bouwmeester's clout as a top-end defenseman had taken a hit. Here was a sleek, puck-mover with good- to above-average offensive ability. But the NHL's current ironman holder (635 straight games played) could not get a sniff in the postseason until this past spring with the Blues.
A lack of postseason experience didn't keep Armstrong from bringing Bouwmeester to St. Louis with visions of pairing him with Pietrangelo.
"He has a lot of responsibility in our organization," Armstrong said of Bouwmeester. "He's going to play a minimum of 25 minutes a night, some nights 30. He's going to play big minutes against the other team's top players.
"We view him as a two-way player, not as an offensive player that can play two-way. We view him as a really good two-way player, a very good defender, a very good stick. I still think he can be a 35-point player, which is more than ample for what we need."
With one year remaining on the original contract signed with Calgary, Bouwmeester and the Blues agreed to a five-year extension over the summer, keeping him in St. Louis for six years.
"You get drafted where you get drafted and we struggled in Florida, had some tough years there," Bouwmeester said. "I went to Calgary and things kind of went sideways pretty quick and you end up coming here.
"For me, it was a real breath of fresh air because I had been in places where every year, you're starting the year in a hole and you're just grinding it out all year. We didn't have bad teams a lot of times, but you make it really hard on yourself."
Armstrong believed Bouwmeester could thrive in St. Louis simply because he was a piece to the puzzle, not the focus.
"I believe he's in a very good spot now that he's not the focal point," Armstrong said. "I think when you get drafted where he was drafted, you become the focal point, and when you sign a free agent contract -- and I think he was the youngest UFA in history at that time because of the new CBA and starting at 18 -- the contract put a lot of focus on him. You take that and you put it into a Canadian market and then the team doesn't perform. When a team doesn't perform, they always look at the highest-paid guy and start there.
"I think in our situation, he's part of the team. We have other players that share the focal point with him, whether it's Pietrangelo or (David) Backes or (Alexander) Steen to name a few. He can just come in and be a part of the team."
For Pietrangelo, last season was viewed as not necessarily a step back, but one in which his progression leveled off. The 23-year-old, who recently signed a seven-year contract, became the focal point of opposing teams, much like Bouwmeester.
In Pietrangelo's first two full seasons, he lived up to the hype, putting up 43 and 51 points, respectively. He garnered more attention when he was fourth in the Norris Trophy voting in 2012.
Even though the 2013 season was shortened by the lockout, expectations grew higher on Pietrangelo. He'd been mentioned in conversations as one who could contend for multiple Norris Trophies, his life as an adult off the ice was developing and he took an active role in the CBA negotiations. It all was a bit overwhelming and produced a 24-point season.
"When you're a young player in my second year and you come onto the scene, it seems like everything's just going to keep going upwards," Pietrangelo said. "Maybe I (plateaued) a bit last year, but I worked a lot this summer to avoid that and get better. I'm only 23. My goal now and throughout my career is to get better. You can always get better whether you're 23 or 33.
"As a young player away from hockey, you kind of go through stages in life where you're trying to balance hockey and life away from the rink. It kind of hit me all at once last year. I was trying to do my best to balance it. Now that things have settled in it's a breath of fresh air, with the contract and all that out of the way. It's a calming effect for me. I'm feeling even more comfortable now than ever."
That's why the Blues didn't really get too alarmed.
"Last year, he would have [considered himself] average to what he expected and what we expected," Armstrong said of Pietrangelo. "That's what excites you. When we talked to him when the season was over, he had no illusions that there's more there.
"You come into a season, everybody knows who you are, his life is maturing off the ice in personal ways with his lifestyle, what he's doing now, where he's at. He's not just a kid anymore that goes home and plays X-Box. He has other responsibilities. I think what he learned last year was trying to balance those off-ice responsibilities with his on-ice responsibilities. He's showed his maturity by telling me that that was something that he recognizes and he's going to work to continue to grow in that area. I think he's a helluva player."
Pietrangelo has gone from the hunter to the hunted.
"Their forwards are always told to get a piece of you because a lot of teams would view him as the head of the snake and he had to learn how to deal with that," Armstrong said of Pietrangelo. "I don't think he took a step back. I don't think he improved. Status quo's not good enough if you want to be that generational player. His ice time was up there, but with great expectations go great responsibilities."
Since Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo will be part of the long-term future of the Blues, both will get the opportunity not only to grow together, but continue to give the Blues a top-end look to their blue line. The Canadian Olympic hopefuls, who could also conceivably be partners at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, developed immediate chemistry on the ice. In the process, Pietrangelo can continue to help Bouwmeester regain his prominent role among the game's top blue liners, and Bouwmeester can help Pietrangelo's progression and solidify his spot among the game's best.
"It's such a big thing bringing him in here, for the organization, for me and for the team, we really wanted to prove what we could do on the back end," Pietrangelo said. "We're working real hard for each other all over the ice.
"He's helped me already. I've already learned a lot of things just playing with him. I hope I can help him, too."
For Bouwmeester, Pietrangelo is undoubtedly the best partner he's ever played with.
"Oh yeah ... it's nothing against anyone I've played with anyone in the past, but he's a talented guy," Bouwmeester said. "No one can deny that.
"From my perspective, I knew coming here that I would have the chance to play with a guy like that who's a real top-end guy. That was exciting."
Both want to be the best at their craft, but there's no denying one common goal.
"This is the best opportunity I've had as far as being on a team in a position that's ready to have some success," Bouwmeester said.
"We want to be at the top of what we do, but we want to win championships," Pietrangelo said. "That's what we're here for."
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