Week one of camp has come and gone. Veterans rehearsed and rookies auditioned and the atmosphere was competitive. Yes, this Blues assortment was like no other. Never has there been such talent present nor emotion visible in camps prior to this one. Chris Pronger, not exactly what one would call happy-go-lucky, displayed his temper on many occasions. And Geoff Courtnall expressed his displeasure with one such rookie’s idea of a “good” check. Then there are the invitees, wide eyed and raring to go. They’ll do anything and everything to capture the eyes of the coaches and scouts. Yes, even dropping the gloves with Prongs. At which Joel Quenneville must have been holding his breath and saying, just turtle Chris. Now that week one has come to a close, let’s evaluate the Blues young players of the future.
There were many players that stood out from the rest of the pack. One of which skated and passed the puck like a seasoned veteran. That player would be Peter Smrek. Just 20 years old, Smrek was paired with Al MacInnis in camp scrimmages and looked slick with his strong skating stride and smooth tape to tape passes. Positioned well defensively and rarely making a mistake, this young blueliner could challenge for a job this year. However, there is one caution flag, can he handle the physical play in the NHL? Is he strong enough to control the puck along the boards and handle a brute such as Eric Lindros in front of the net? Well not many d-men can achieve that lofty task. Therefore, if Smrek proves he’s not a liability defensively, then his quick transition game would fit nicely in the Blues lineup. Judging by his performance in the Blues first pre-season game, Smrek has potential. However, his lack of strength presented a problem in his own zone against Chicago. If he adapts quickly to the bump and grind style, then look for Peter to challenge Jamie Rivers and Chris McAlpine for ice time.
Another defenseman wildly talked about ever since Larry Pleau protected him in the expansion draft, is 25 year old Libor Prochazka. Drafted in 1993, 245th overall, Libor has quietly made a name for himself and worked his way up the depth chart. Libor had a strong first week of camp. Although he didn’t stick out as much as Peter Smrek, he showed enough promise to think of him as a prospect. He doesn’t have the skating skills or the flashy passing, just a chippy way of getting the job done. To say his play is similar to that of Darius Kasparitis is not stretching the truth. Libor also played in the first game of the pre-season and looked a bit slow in his decision making. His positioning was also a glaring weakness, although he did get better as the game wore on. It is crucial for Libor to be able to make a quick decision with the puck and for his passing to improve before he is to play in the NHL.
Barret Jackman, attending his first NHL training camp, had no pressure. It was almost a given that he would return to his junior team after a week of camp and possibly one pre-season game under his belt. However, Barret has done more than could be expected. While settling in under Chris Pronger’s wing, Barret did not look out of place. Using good vision and anticipation, he made crisp outlet passes and also showed his great defensive instincts. Occasionally displaying a mean streak, his fuse proved to be short, engaging any willing participants. He had coach Q salivating at the prospect of a Jackman Pronger combination and definitely showed why the Blues drafted him with their first round pick.
Now let’s turn our attention to the forwards. Marty Reasoner was a model of consistency during the first week of camp. He showed how hard he has worked on the defensive side of his game, and as always, displayed his playmaking ability offensively. Marty is on the verge of a breakout season, whether it is with the Blues or not is still in question. He plays well at both ends of the ice and makes up for a lack of speed with his anticipation. Reasoner has always had a knack of finding the open player on the ice, it was just a matter of being able to do it at NHL speed. Now that it seems he has developed the ability to read plays quickly, one would guess his chances are very good to make the team. St. Louis is in need of a second line center, which would move Pavol back to a more effective position at right wing. In a perfect world the Blues would like to see Marty succeed at Worcester before bringing him to the NHL, however, having already played in a handful of games last year one would suspect that Reasoner would more than meet the challenge.
Last year at this time all eyes were on scoring ace Daniel Corso. After scoring 75 points in 35 games in his final year of junior eligibility, expectations may have been too high too fast for this speedy forward. What a difference a year makes. Corso looked like a different player, he was more involved in the play and active without the puck. Showing off his blazing speed, he teased defensemen to the inside and dared them to stop him outside. This is what the Blues hoped to see from Corso last season in the AHL. However, no matter how well he performs, he will be back in Worcester at least one more season because of the depth the Blues have at center. Another centerman that will be headed to Worcester is Tyler Rennette. After a strong rookie tournament in which he lead the team in goals and points, Tyler built on that performance with a great first week of camp in Chesterfield. His skating has improved dramatically from a year ago and his confidence has risen for that very reason. Look for him to have a solid first season for the Ice Cats. James Desmarais had an impressive training camp. He showed the speed and shifty moves that enabled him to have such a successful junior career. However, the real shock is that the Blues drafted this overage junior with the 270th pick of this years draft. How this kid slipped through the cracks is a mystery. Although he is only listed at 5-10 and weighing 174 lbs., Desmarais has enough skill to compete at the next level. Most likely that won’t happen this year as he is probably ticketed for Worcester, but don’t be surprised if he has a big year for the Ice Cats.
The Blues biggest off-season need was to acquire a goaltender that could post respectable numbers and perhaps carry the team deeper into the playoffs. Inter Roman Turek. The master plan was for Turek to win the starting job and for Fuhr to be the capable backup. Before arriving at the Blues Chesterfield practice facility, one question was sure to be repeated throughout camp. Who would be the number one goaltender? Then after Grant Fuhr was traded to Calgary the question became, Grant who? Now that a week has gone by a more appropriate question might be, Roman who? Brent Johnson has stolen the show in the first week of camp. He was by far the best goaltender in camp scrimmages and in the championship game beat the Turek led blue team 4-1, the only goal coming on a penalty shot (which was, by the way, a questionable call). Johnson, who is known for his great training camps, looked more confident than ever. Using his butterfly style and his big 6-2 inch frame to fill the net, he baffled the blue team in the first period of the final game. He drew applause from the fans and extracted a chorus of ooh’s and ahs with his lightening quick glove hand. Brent Johnson has built on his impressive finish last year for Worcester. He was phenomenal in the playoffs and in his short stint with the Blues last year showed he has potential to be a number one goalie. But will the Blues even give him a chance at the backup job, or will they send him back to Worcester to find out if he can dominate at the AHL level. Probably the latter, however, they would be better off with Brent on the big club as opposed to Mclennan. Looking toward the future in goal, the Blues had to have been please with what they saw in rookie Cody Rudkowsky. He played confident and made many eye popping saves. He is, as they say, “the real deal”. Headed to Worcester, Cody looks to be a quick learner and very well could develop faster than many anticipate.
Overall, the ’99 Blues look to be better than last years club. But with so many positive moves and additions there are still questions about this team. Can Roman Turek be a number one goaltender? Can he post the numbers he had with Dallas last year? Can Geoff Courtnall and Jim Campbell make successful comebacks from injuries? Are there any young players ready to contribute? If the answer is yes, then St. Louis could be embarking on what could be a special season for Blues fans.