05/03/2016 12:24 EDT | Updated 05/04/2017 01:12 EDT

Rookie Blues defenceman forges unlikely path, from unranked to big-time NHL role

NHL defencemen don't typically travel the path of St. Louis Blues rookie Colton Parayko.

They aren't usually unranked draft prospects who leap from the NCAA into big-time roles in the NHL as Parayko has for the Blues. Just over a year ago, the St. Albert, Alta., native was suiting up for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks. 

Parayko, who turns 23 next week, is now playing more than 20 minutes a night in the NHL playoffs.

"I don't think there was ever a doubt when he came to our program and we (saw) how hard he worked and how much he paid attention to the details, that we didn't think he wasn't going to play in the NHL," said Dallas Ferguson, the Nanooks head coach. "But to make this much of an immediate impact, I think we would be with the majority of people, we didn't think that that was going to happen so quickly."

Ferguson is effusive in his praise of Parayko's character, praise that is repeated almost line for line by another coach from the defenceman's past.

Gord Thibodeau was Parayko's head coach with the Fort McMurray Oil Barons of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

"A special kid," Thibodeau says of Parayko, who is hard to miss at six foot six and more than 200 pounds. "The type of kid that's doing a lot of work on and off the ice that other players frankly just don't or won't do."

"He's such a quality human being," Thibodeau adds. "He knows what he has to do to be successful."

Parayko came to Thibodeau in Fort McMurray when he had just sprouted up, from about five foot seven one summer, as Thibodeau remembers it, to six foot three. Parayko was still adjusting to his newfound size when he joined the Oil Barons. Coaches remember him resembling a young horse just learning to walk, all awkward and gangly.

They told him he needed to be quicker. And so every day after practice, Parayko used an agility ladder to work on his foot speed.

"We didn't tell him to do it, we just suggested that he needed to work on his footwork," Thibodeau said. "You don't often find 17-year-olds who do that on their own and he did it every day religiously."

Thibodeau wonders if that's the reason Parayko went undrafted in 2011 and unranked by NHL central scouting ahead of the 2012 draft. He was slightly awkward and still growing and perhaps scouts were concerned about what he might look like down the line. They might have also been unaware of that growth spurt Parayko had when he was 14 or 15.

Chicago, Toronto and Edmonton were all sniffing around ahead of the 2011 draft, Thibodeau says. He thought the Blackhawks and Maple Leafs might take a chance, but neither did. The draft chatter picked up a bit more in Parayko's sophomore season with Alaska.

At that point, despite his absence on central scouting's radar, a few teams were prepared to grab Parayko in the fourth or fifth round, according to Thibodeau, but the Blues struck first in the third round. Marshall Davidson, then an area scout for St. Louis, had done his homework on Parayko, who had nine goals and 33 points as an NHL rookie.

"I got two phone calls that day from the draft floor from other teams going 'What the hell? Where did they come from?'" Thibodeau recalled of the Blues, who picked Parayko 86th overall.

"I think it was the more you watched him the more you seen how good this player was," Ferguson said. "Because I think if you watched him one time he's probably not going to blow your socks off."

Parayko looks every bit his size. He's by far the biggest figure on a physically imposing Blues defence that features Alex Pietrangelo (six foot three), Jay Bouwmeester (six foot four), and Joel Edmunson (six foot four). And yet he moves relatively well, plays with poise, boasts a heavy shot and has apparently done enough to earn the trust of coach Ken Hitchcock on the NHL's third best team during the regular season.

He has two goals and four points so far in the playoffs for the Blues. His ascension is perhaps only beginning.

Thibodeau, now coaching the Lloydminster Bobcats of the AJHL, thinks Parayko can become whatever kind of defenceman the Blues want him to be: a shutdown player with a long, ensnaring reach or an offensive-leaning one with a big shot.

Like Ferguson, he's hardly taken aback by the immediate impact.

"When he made it there's obviously a little bit of a surprise," Thibodeau said, "but like I said, knowing the kid it's not a total surprise to me."

Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press