The first thing you notice about Colton Parayko is that you can’t help but notice Colton Parayko.
And for the Blues, that was a problem.
Thus, their pursuit of the young lad from St. Albert, Alberta, is like a chapter from an Ian Fleming novel. It begins with Parayko playing for the Tier II Fort McMurray Oil Barons of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. That’s not exactly Siberia, but on the hockey landscape it’s close.
Then one day the Blues got a tip, essentially from a Russian spy.
“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 they 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. ”
Before Parayko made it down to the roads more frequently traveled, the KGB Blues placed him in their prospect protection program. That is, they drafted him.
“I sneaked in there one last time, realized what teams were watching him and figured out, ‘OK, if we take him at this point, we’ll get him.’ And that’s what we did,” Armstrong said.
The covert operation succeeded, the Blues got their man with a third-round pick in the 2012 NHL draft, the 86th player taken.
So it’s OK now. Go ahead and notice Parayko. The cat’s out of the bag, and it’s a big cat.
A righthanded defenseman, Parayko stands 6 feet 5 and weighs 219 pounds. He was a redwood among the magnolias in the Blues’ developmental camp this week at St. Louis Outlet Mall, and much of the growth has come over the past two years. Since he was drafted in the summer of ’12, Parayko has put on 26 pounds while losing two pounds of body fat. Yet, he is still slender, still getting thicker.
“I pretty much shot up from about 5-8 to 6-4 over the span of a year or two,” Parayko said. “So, for a while, it was a lot of coordination and skating work. I felt like I was a new deer out there. It was a little tough at first to adapt, but you just have to work at it and get better.”
That grindstone-chafed nose is what makes Parayko so promising. Odds are daunting for third-round draft picks in professional hockey. In statistics kept from 1990-1999, more than 2,000 players were taken from the third round and beyond in the draft.
Only 261 went on to significant NHL careers, with “significant” defined as 200 NHL games or more. That’s a conversion rate of about 12 percent.
If you consider Cardinals infielder Mark Ellis gets a hit 19 percent of the time, the numbers certainly are discouraging.
That said, Blues forward Vladimir Sobotka was a fourth-round selection, Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk was a sixth-round choice, Henrik Zetterberg a seventh-rounder. Not all late-round picks are created equal.
Not all are big defenseman, who skate like Parayko, who work like Parayko.
“Obviously, it’s going to be very tough,” Parayko said. “Every kid wants to play in the NHL, it’s their dream and every one is pushing for it. There’s millions of kids playing the game. It’s almost about how bad you want it and essentially it comes down to doing what you need to do, and putting the work in to get to the next level.”
Parayko soon will begin his junior year at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, studying business and playing in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
It is not a premier league for a polished product, but it is a perfect place for a work in progress.
Last season, he improved to seven goals and 19 assists in 37 games.
“He plays about 26 minutes a night there and he’s the man,” Armstrong said. “And the way that they play, they go into a place for 10 days when they go on the road. So he’s in one place, working out. It’s a great program to get bigger/stronger and he’s taking advantage of it.
“He’s going in the right direction. He’s got a long way to go, but he’s getting there ... He’s putting the odds in his favor by how hard he’s working.”
As he watched Parayko cover ice in an afternoon scrimmage, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock likened his easy skating style to that of 6-8, 227-pound Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers. And the Blues once had a tall, gangly defenseman that could play a little, a 6-6 fella named Chris Pronger.
The name-drops aren’t to suggest Parayko is like those NHLers, but to suggest space is available for players such as him.
“He’s an intriguing guy, we’re excited about him,” Armstrong said.
Don’t worry. It’s safe to say that now.