The St. Louis Blues have their prospects playing in the minor leagues with either the Peoria Rivermen (AHL) or the Alaska Aces (ECHL). Several of these players are rookie pros getting their first taste of the action. Peoria is sitting at a respectable 14-9-3-3, while Alaska is comfortable at 16-9-2.
Marek Schwarz, G
St. Louis’ top goaltending prospect has continued to provide solid goaltending at the American League level.
The goaltending rotation in Peoria has been tumultuous for a good portion of the season, but seems to have settled down in recent weeks, which should allow Schwarz to better find his rhythm. He began the year sharing duties with Jason Bacashihua and Juuso Riksman. Neither of those goalies are still with the organization, so it appears that it Schwarz will now tandem with Chris Beckford-Tseu, who seems to have once again landed himself a job in Peoria after starting the year in the ECHL.
Schwarz started off his season fairly well, picking up several wins in the early going. He slumped in November when the goaltending carousel was in full motion, but he was called up to St. Louis to back up Hannu Toivonen when Manny Legace was injured. Just before the Christmas break, he picked up a pair of wins in Lake Erie, turning aside 46 out of 50 shots in the victories.
Overall, Schwarz has recorded 12 decisions thus far, with a 6-5-2 record. He has held opponents to two goals or fewer in eight of those games, and his GAA of 2.35 ranks him seventh in the AHL. His save percentage is a respectable .901.
Now that the goaltending situation seems to have leveled itself out in Peoria, Schwarz should have a better chance of returning to his all-star form of the previous season.
Nicholas Drazenovic, C
WHL graduate Nicholas Drazenovic has begun his professional career with moderate success. He has settled nicely into the role of playmaking center, and has seen plenty of time on the power play with several different linemates. Due to a plethora of good forwards down on the farm, rookies like Drazenovic could be a scratch on any given night if their play slips. This has perhaps prevented complacency among them.
Drazenovic has gotten himself into the line-up 22 times this season, producing three goals and 11 assists. Five of those helpers have come with the man advantage. He scored his first AHL goal on Oct. 28 versus Grand Rapids, and got the overtime game-winner on Nov. 10 against Rockford. His biggest night thus far has been a three-assist outing in San Antonio in early December. Drazenovic has been a plus player throughout the season, and his rating is currently plus-6. He also has 16 penalty minutes.
Expect the 20-year-old to continue his maturation process in the AHL for the remainder of the season, building upon his decent early production.
Chris Porter, LW
Signed as a free agent, 2007
The signing of North Dakota graduate Chris Porter may have only been a footnote in the list of Blues off-season activity, but he has shown himself to be much more than that thus far in Peoria.
Porter is a very effective player down low and in front of the net, using his strength and determination to grind out goals and assists. So far, he has put away five goals of his own, while helping to set up 12 others. Porter has been very consistent all season, spreading his 17 points over 15 games, giving Peoria a dependable offensive threat. In the season opener, he assisted on Peoria’s first two goals, giving him his first points as a professional. So far, two of Porter’s goals have been game-winners. The 22-year-old also has 26 penalty minutes, and a plus-5 rating.
Porter was originally drafted by Chicago, but never signed a contract with them. The fact that he was an NCAA teammate of T.J. Oshie is likely what brought him onto the Blues’ radar. So far, it looks like Porter was a free agent worth taking a chance on.
Nikolai Lemtyugov, RW
Russian forward Nikolai Lemtyugov made the jump to North America this season, and his performance so far has been encouraging.
Lemtyugov has always been an offensive-minded player, and he has not disappointed in that category, registering 15 points in 22 games. He got off to a bit of a slow start, with just seven points by the end of November, and was a healthy scratch from the line-up on a few occasions as well. But as he has begun adjusting to the North American style of game, his production has begun to pick up. Lemtyugov enjoyed a five-game point-scoring streak through the middle of December, notching goals in three consecutive games in the process. He scored a goal and an assist in a 4-3 victory over Rochester on Dec. 15.
As his offensive prowess has improved, so has his overall game. The physical side of his game has been evident in some instances, and he has improved his play at his own end of the ice. As the year goes on and Lemtyugov becomes more and more used to a different brand of hockey, his effectiveness should only increase.
Ryan Reaves, RW
Another rookie, former Brandon Wheat King Ryan Reaves, has been useful as a grinder on Peoria’s bottom lines.
Reaves wasn’t drafted with the hope that he would become an offensive star, so his seemingly unimpressive point total of two goals and an assist in 21 games should come as no surprise. The 20-year-old winger bases his game around physical play and a strong presence in his own end of the rink.
Reaves was used sparingly in the early portion of the season, and in fact began the year with the ECHL’s Alaska Aces, for whom he played two games. Reaves made his first mark on the AHL in physical fashion in a mid-November game against Houston. Just three minutes into the contest, he was given the boot for a charging major and an ensuing fight. A week later, he scored his first professional goal in a game against the Chicago Wolves. With his spot in the line-up becoming more stable, his performance continued to improve. On Dec. 1, Reaves had the winning goal and an assist in a 6-5 defeat of San Antonio. He got into his second scrap of the season a couple games later, and has continued to be a physical asset in the Rivermen line-up.
Roman Polak, D
When Roman Polak suffered a broken ankle in early December, Peoria lost the services of one of their best defensive blueliners for at least a couple of months.
Polak, who spent 19 games in the NHL in 2006-07, came into training camp with hopes of cracking the NHL roster. Perhaps suffering from the sophomore jinx that dogs numerous second-year players, in combination with the fact that the Blues have a deep defensive unit, he found himself back in the AHL to kick off the campaign. Initially he struggled to regain his 2006-07 form, but by November he had rounded back into shape.
Polak is known for his stalwart play in his own end, and he is used to mixing it up physically. He got into his first fight on the season on Nov. 10, taking on Rockford’s Danny Richmond. While not a noteworthy point-producer, Polak is capable of chipping in goals and assists now and then, and he had five helpers in 21 games at the time of his injury.
A broken ankle is an injury that obviously won’t allow Polak to skate for several weeks. When he returns, he will probably need some time to work himself back into game shape. Hopefully he will be able to do this in time for the stretch drive in the spring and make good on a season interrupted by the injury bug.
Alexander Hellstrom, D
Twenty-year-old Swedish defenseman Alexander Hellstrom has been a pleasant surprise on the Peoria blue line this season.
The first two months of the season were a little shaky, as Hellstrom was still acclimating to playing against North American professionals. He was in and out of the line-up, but has continued to make strides and improve. He scored his first goal of the year against Houston on Oct. 13. The third-period tally would hold up as the game winner. Hellstrom has never shied away from rough and tumble hockey, and he got into his first fight of the season in late November, a tilt with Nathan Oystrick of Chicago.
Hellstrom has really found his defensive groove in December. This strong play comes at a great time for the Rivermen, who hope that the rookie can fill the defensive void left by Polak’s absence. Overall he has three points in 19 games and is +7.
Jeff Woywitka, D
Acquired via trade, 2005
was hoping to return to the Blues line-up after training camp (he skated in 34 games with St. Louis last season), but has instead anchored the blue line in Peoria.
With a plus-11 rating, Woywitka is tied for the Rivermen team lead in that category. He has been valuable in both ends of the rink, with five goals and 12 points in 29 games to help out the offense. He has spread around his points, with his only multi-point outing occurring in a November match against Rockford, when he buried two goals. His offense has slowed over the last month or so, with a recent a 10-game pointless drought, but he has remained stable in his own zone over that stretch.
While it must be disappointing for Woywitka, a former first-round selection, that he hasn’t been able to solidify a spot in the NHL yet, his continued strong play in the AHL should ensure that he will receive the call if injuries strike the NHL club.
Francois-Pierre Guenette, C
Acquired via trade, 2007
Offensive center Francois-Pierre Guenette, acquired from Vancouver in the off-season, has spent the entire season with the Alaska Aces.
In 26 games, Guenette has scored six goals and 12 assists, which places him fourth on the team in scoring. His biggest game of the season came on Nov. 21 against Stockton. His three assists, including two in the third period, solidified an 8-5 Alaska victory. The 23-year-old native of Laval, Quebec is frequently used on the power play, where he has scored two of his goals. Currently, Guenette is a plus-6 and has just four penalty minutes.
If the Rivermen were in need of a playmaker due to injury or otherwise, Guenette would probably be one of the first players considered for recall to the AHL.
Tomas Kana, C
The Blues had high hopes for Tomas Kana, drafted 31st overall in 2006, coming into the 2007-08 season. It was expected that Kana would be a contributor in the AHL this year, perhaps even getting a look with the NHL club if the situation called for it. But Kana struggled mightily in St. Louis’ prospect camp in September, and didn’t fare much better when the team’s main training camp opened. As such, he found himself in the ECHL when the final rosters were determined.
Kana got onto the scoresheet early on, recording goals in back-to-back games in October. The second of those, a third-period marker against Stockton, sent the game to overtime, allowing the Aces to salvage a point. But despite the early success, Kana was unable to find his form, producing a paltry eight shots on goal over the next eight games, and no points. He was also a minus-four with no penalty minutes over that same stretch.
At that point, returning home to the Czech Republic to play with his former club Vitkovice seemed like the best option, and he did just that. Kana just turned 20 years old, so perhaps the culture shock of coming to North America so early in his career was too much for him to handle. He and the Blues will hope he can turn his season around back in Europe and make a better go of things in North America next season.