Saturday, April 2, 2016

Colton Parayko: From small to big story in the NHL

By Larry Wigge

Colton Parayko was prowling a St. Paul, Minnesota, hotel. A couple of books under his arms, he looks like an athlete ... but he is also a student. And he just had taken a written exam at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

If it's morning or the occasional evening, he's away at the rink with his hockey face on. If it's afternoon or on a flight with the team, he's usually studying.

Parayko is busy finishing up 15 credits online at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he's majoring in Business Administration with a concentration in Finance. And like most college students, he's not sure exactly what he wants to do in the field just yet.

So ... there's no time to waste. Too many things to do.

Parayko had to laugh. He was a small player with big dreams ahead at the age of 14. But those weren't the only obstacles facing him.

"I pretty much shot up from about 5-8 to 6-4 over the span of a year or two," Parayko explained, looking for a reaction about the size of the story he had just told me.

"So, for a while, it was a lot of coordination and skating work. It was crazy, a crazy transition. First few years, I was Bambi-like out there on my skates. It was a little tough at first to adapt, but you just have to work at it and get better."

He undertook the uncommon route to the NHL, going from Tier Two Fort McMurray to college. After three years at Alaska, the 6-6, 226-pound defenseman had a decision to make whether to turn pro with the St. Louis Blues, who drafted him in the third round, 86th pick, in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.

"I made a promise to my parents (Tom and Karen) to finish my degree," said Parayko. "And that just what I'm doing."

A hockey season for the rookie can run too long. But for this St. Albert, Alberta, native, it is going along just right.

After last season, his first order of business was at the Chicago of the American Hockey League. Then, Traverse City, Mich., came up for all of the Blues' prospects.

That's when Blues captain David Backes happened along one day last summer, while awaiting the birth of his child. Backes has also left school after his junior season many years ago. But he never had Parayko's great story to tell after he left Minnesota State.

Backes did a double-take ... looking at Parayko. Whoa!!!!!

"He was just a mountain of a man," said Backes. "Carved out of stone. His physique and demeanor is exactly what you want in a young hockey player. He was always willing to learn and wanting to absorb all the information he can.

"At that point, you don't know who going to make the team in June. But he has paid a price. He put in his time. He's got a shot. He's still learning the game ... and he's hungry to learn. No player out of college has it all figure out."

Parayko is playing quality minutes for a rookie. On most night that means 17 minutes to 20 minutes. But, signifigant times, missing key defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, it could mean over 20 minutes a game.

On March 26 in a game at Washington, Parayko skated across the blue line and unleashed a slap shot that whooshed by Capitals goaltender Philipp Grubauer for a 2-0 lead in the second period of a 4-0 victory by the Blues. It was Parayko's eighth goal to go along with 23 assists. He was a plus-4 in the game, making him at +22.

There are those who will say this or that about Parayko's performance, but he has saved his best for when Shattenkirk, Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester have been absent.

"People think he came out of nowhere," argued Bouwmeester. "But he went to school. He's a little older. For a big man he moves well. He's calm. Doesn't panic. And a big, big shot.

"And those little wristers ... you saw him tonight. He gets them off quick. There's not much time for a goalie to react.

"The heavy Shea Weber sort of shot, where it gets there quick, and an innocent shot can go in because it surprises the goalie. If I had a shot like that, I'd be shooting everything."

Or take it from Hall of Fame defenseman Al MacInnis, "Talk about a combination of size and skill and his work ethic off the ice -- this guy is a disciple. He's gained 22 pounds of muscle since we drafted him. He's a pro at a young age ... and he's doing it playing a position that generally takes years for players to settle in at.

"The way he's played since Day 1, it's hard to believe it's his first year. He hasn't had much publicity nationally but there aren't many defensemen who come into the league and play this well and at a consistent basis. It has been unreal."

Some say Parayko is better than No. 1 overall pick in 2006 Erik Johnson ... offensively and defensively as a rookie.

Prior to Parayko's draft day in 2012 everything was kept on a hush-hush basis. Shhhhhh! The Blues didn't want anyone to know about this kid from Fort McMurray.

Colton wasn't good enough to be drafted by a Western Hockey League club. Nor was he good enough to play midget Triple-A.

"Somebody had seen him in a tournament in Russia and they told us, 'Hey, you need to go see this team in Canada he plays for, this kid is a pretty good player,' " explained Bill Armstrong, Blues director of amateur scouting. "So we sneaked in to see him at odd times, because we didn’t want to give away who we were watching.

"Where he played, up north in the oil fields, scouts don't go there. They wait until the teams come down to play in Calgary or Edmonton and watch the league there. But we never watched him there, because we didn't want anyone to know that we liked him. We went to see him a lot of times at the furthest away from the easiest spot to see him."

Blues president Doug Armstrong says of Parayko's shot, "He has a heavy shot, and he is able to get his shot through the first and second layers of traffic. But we aren't going to judge his success on a year-to-year basis based on goals. It's going to be on the other parts of his game. What impresses me the most about him is his ability to use his size and reach to defend against bigger, stronger players. The offensive production is a bonus.

"One thing with him is that he is a tireless worker. Right from the day he was drafted, we saw that. We are less surprised that he is here now because of the work he has put in. But he is certainly a late bloomer."

Earlier in the season, Parayko was able to track down Johnny Gaudreau of Calgary who has speed to burn.

"Yeah," coach Ken Hitchcock said laughing. "For a big man, he has good foot speed. He almost pulled away from Gaudreau.

"He's around big points right now, which is a good sign for us right now. He's getting a lot of big points, timely points, timely goals, timely assists, whatever. He's having a big impact with us right now.

"He's figuring things out and not letting it get to his head. He moves on quickly from the good and bad stuff. He's an interesting guy because he can play both sides of the point on the power play, too.

"But again, the thing is it's a dream never dies story."

Away from the ice and away from his school books, you'll find Parayko studying films of some the NHL's best defensemen. Gary Suter, Weber, Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk and Bouwmeester.

Hitchcock saw him first at Chicago of the AHL last spring in the playoffs.

"We saw him play two playoff games. He looked great. He was quarterbacking the power-play," Hitchcock said. "He come right in and showed great composure. His composure and his stick positioning, his reach, he's able to kill plays offensively, he's hard to play against ... He doesn't panic with the puck. Can make passes through people. It's pretty impressive. There's a heck of a package there."

Colton Parayko has taken the circuitous route to the NHL. From too small, to too big ... too just right.

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