Blues Top 20 Prospects, Spring 2008

By Kyle McMahon

Top 20 at a glance

Player (previous ranking)

1. Erik Johnson (1)
2. T.J. Oshie (2)
3. Patrik Berglund (4)
4. Lars Eller (5)
5. David Perron (8)
6. Marek Schwarz (3)
7. Ian Cole (9)
8. Simon Hjalmarsson (13)
9. Jay Barriball (11)
10. Ben Bishop (12)
11. Jonas Junland (17)
12. Nikolai Lemtyugov (16)
13. Roman Polak (14)
14. Aaron Palushaj (19)
15. Cade Fairchild (20)
16. Tomas Kana (10)
17. Steve Wagner (nr)
18. Viktor Alexandrov (nr)
19. Nicholas Drazenovic (nr)
20. Travis Erstad (nr)

St. Louis’ prospect list has seen the graduation of some solid players recently, but remains a very impressive group. The Blues can claim strong depth at all positions, especially up front. Several of the current stock have the potential to become star-caliber players at the NHL level.

1. Erik Johnson, D, (9.0 B)

 Drafted: 1st Overall, 2006

Defenseman Erik Johnson, the most highly anticipated prospect the Blues have ever drafted, has made a solid NHL debut in 2007-08, and is the clear No. 1 prospect in the system.

Johnson has handled the transition from the NCAA to the pros about as well as can reasonably be expected. Aside from an unwelcome stay on the injury list early in the season, the 19-year-old blueliner has been a mainstay on St. Louis’ back end. Projected to be a two-way defenseman, Johnson has delivered with 24 points in 53 games. He has been efficient on the power play, and has posted several multi-point nights. All three of Johnson’s goals are game winners, and he leads all Blues defensemen in points. St. Louis bench boss Andy Murray has been careful not to overwork his young star, keeping Johnson under 20 minutes of ice time on most nights.

Teenage defenders in the NHL are a rarity, and it’s even less common to see them enjoy the success that Johnson has encountered. While it might be a stretch to call Johnson a generational talent, he clearly has the makings of a future star. The young American is definitely living up to his billing as the cornerstone of the Blues’ rebuilding project, and should anchor the defense for years to come.

2. T.J. Oshie, C, (8.0 B)

Drafted: 24th Overall, 2005

An offensively gifted center, Oshie is the top forward in a solid pool of prospects up front. Many people expected that Oshie would already be on the Blues roster by now. After two great seasons at North Dakota, he appeared ready to turn pro. But Oshie decided to come back to the Fighting Sioux for another season, and he is once again proving to be one of the top players in the NCAA.

While there may be some questions about Oshie’s maturity (he has been arrested twice for minor incidents in the last two seasons), there is no denying his abilities as a hockey player. A dangerous centerman, Oshie is both an adept playmaker and goal scorer. He has averaged over a point per game in both of his previous seasons at North Dakota, and has a good chance to do that again this year with 33 points in 30 games. While his scoring levels have remained fairly consistent throughout, it’s evident that Oshie has become more physically involved as he has developed.

After three seasons in college, Oshie has surely progressed as far as he can go at that level. He should come into Blues training camp next fall looking to compete for a roster spot. In the long run, the 21-year-old could find himself as St. Louis’ go-to offensive center.  

3. Patrik Berglund, C, (7.5 B)

Drafted: 24th Overall, 2006

Not far behind Oshie is another pivot who can pile up the points, 19-year-old Swede Patrik Berglund. Berglund was a scoring star in the Allsvenskan in Sweden in 2006-07, and he has picked up right where he left off this season. With 21 goals and 43 points to his name so far, the youngster has practically replicated his offensive totals from the previous year, and finds himself in seventh place in the league’s scoring derby. His Vasteras team has once again been one of the better clubs in the Allsvenskan.

Berglund is a highly-skilled player who is also imposing by virtue of his 6’4, 187-pound frame. He hasn’t yet shown much of a physical nature, but his size makes it easy for him to push through defenders. He is a smart passer with a good scoring touch, and his long reach can make him an effective puck rusher. 

It is uncertain whether or not Berglund will be in a Blues sweater next season. If the organization feels he is good enough to hold down a job in the NHL, that is likely where he will play. If not, the AHL and going back to Sweden for another season are both possibilities. Regardless of what happens in the immediate future, Berglund has the potential to be a first or second line NHL player a few seasons from now. 

4. Lars Eller, LW (7.5 B)

Drafted: 13th Overall, 2007

The multi-faceted skill set that Lars Eller brings to the table earns him fourth spot in the rankings. In a prospect crop full of high scoring forwards at the top, Eller brings some balance to the mix with his potential as a two-way threat. Hockey sense seems to be one of Eller’s biggest strengths, and along with his playmaking abilities, that could make him a perfect fit on one of the top two lines in St. Louis down the road. He possesses a strong work ethic and desire to succeed, and should bring character to any team he plays with.

A native of Denmark, Eller has been advancing his career in Sweden so far. He put up points at will in the junior league in 2006-07, and has played in both the SEL and Allsvenskan in 2007-08. At just 18 years of age, Eller is one of the youngest players in the SEL, where he has appeared in 10 games with Frolunda, recording one assist. He has spent the majority of the year with Boras HC in the Allsvenskan, with two goals and six assists in 19 matches.

Eller seems to be ahead of the curve in terms of his on-ice awareness and overall game, but he is probably still at least another season or two away from playing in North America. 

5. David Perron, LW, (8.0 C)

Drafted: 26th Overall, 2007

The Blues knew they were getting a talented forward when they drafted Perron this past summer, but they likely didn’t expect him to be making an impact at the highest level so soon. Coming out of training camp, Perron and the Blues were in an awkward position. The 19-year-old had performed strongly, and indicated that he was probably too good to benefit from another year in the QMJHL. But it was still uncertain if he was far enough along in his development to be of use in the NHL. The Blues took a gamble and kept him up in the big league, and that move looks to have paid off. Perron has played in 46 games for the Blues to this point, scoring 11 goals and adding 11 more assists. Perhaps the most telling stat is his plus-12 rating, which leads the entire team. Overall, Perron ranks 13th in the league in rookie scoring.

Perron was drafted in the first round based on his impressive offensive upside. A good skater and shooter, there’s no reason to doubt Perron’s abilities to generate scoring opportunities. In fact, Perron has an eye-popping 22.4 shooting percentage this year, second best in the entire NHL, indicating he buries his chances when they present themselves.

The young rookie has had his ups and downs this season, but if his debut season is any indication, he should become a solid contributor on Blues scoring lines for years to come.

6. Marek Schwarz, G, (8.0 C)

Drafted: 17th Overall, 2004

A former first-round pick, goaltender Marek Schwarz remains the Blues top prospect between the pipes. Schwarz is a generally regarded as a butterfly style goalie with a speedy glove hand. He has the leg size to take up much of the lower portion of the net, and cuts off his angles well.

Overall, Schwarz hasn’t quite had the campaign many people were envisioning. After a stellar rookie season, Schwarz has failed to solidify himself as the No. 1 goaltender in Peoria, St. Louis’ AHL affiliate. He has appeared in 23 games with the Rivermen, posting a 9-10-2 record. He has a 2.57 GAA and a mediocre .891 save percentage, which is below his 2006-07 mark. Schwarz has been recalled to the Blues at times this season, mostly being used as a backup. He has appeared in two games, and has allowed six goals against in 49 total minutes.

Despite the less-than-encouraging results this season, Schwarz is still young for a goaltender at just under 22 years of age. There is still plenty of time for the lanky netminder to develop into a bona fide No. 1 goalie in the AHL and eventually find a permanent spot on the NHL roster.  

7. Ian Cole, D  (7.5 C)

Drafted: 18th Overall, 2007

After Johnson, Notre Dame freshman Ian Cole is St. Louis’ top prospect on the blue line. Cole’s role will likely be that of a stay-at-home defenseman, as his strong points are his strength and willingness to throw his weight around. He is at his best when defending his own zone, making it tough for opponents to gain a step on him with his good tactical play. Cole is also adept at moving the puck up and out of his own zone.

Cole began his NCAA career at Notre Dame in the fall. He has had his struggles at times throughout the season, but seems to be improving as the campaign wears on. Cole was a nice addition to Team USA’s World Junior team in December, and he has put up a decent number of points. In 33 games, he has scored four goals to go along with seven assists. The only concern seems to be his minus-8 rating, which is the lowest on his team, but he is young yet and should become more dependable with experience.

Clearly Cole will need a couple more years at Notre Dame to mature, but when he’s ready to make the jump, the Blues can expect a reliable second pairing defenseman.   

8. Simon Hjalmarsson, RW (7.0 C)

Drafted: 39th Overall, 2007

With St. Louis having three first-round picks in the 2007 draft, it’s easy to see how Swedish forward Simon Hjalmarsson, taken with their first second-rounder of that draft, could have been lost in the shuffle. But strong results will always bring a player into focus sooner or later, and Hjalmarsson is looking good.

Hjalmarsson has spent most of the season with the Frolunda junior team, where he was a scoring menace last season. He has continued his strong play in 2007-08, notching 15 goals and 26 assists in 33 games played. He has also seen action in the Allsvenskan as a teammate of Lars Eller on Boras HC. He has produced six points in 10 games while with Boras.

While Hjalmarsson’s game is clearly geared towards offense, he has shown himself to be capable in other areas. Possessing average at best size, it comes as a surprise to some that he isn’t afraid to play with an aggressive edge, and is no stranger to the penalty box (86 PIM in the under-20 league this year). Hjalmarsson is also used in penalty-killing situations.

Having just turned 19, it seems reasonable to expect Hjalmarsson to play another season or two in Sweden before making a serious go at a job in North America.   

9. Jay Barriball, C, (7.0 C)

Drafted: 203rd Overall, 2006 (San Jose)

Minnesota Golden Gopher Barriball has had a bit of a disappointing season so far, but still remains one of St. Louis’ better prospects at the forward position.

Despite his dip in production (just five goals this year compared to 20 last season), Barriball is still one of Minnesota’s top scorers, and sits just one assist off the team lead, with 14. The sophomore slump hit hard during January, but Barriball has picked up the pace a little as of late, collecting three points in a two-game set with Wisconsin in late February. A nice run at the end of the season could help his confidence heading into next year.

There is no question that Barriball has the offensive tools to make it in the pros, and he demonstrates a good work ethic and leadership abilities on the ice. But as is often the case with players of Barriball’s size, 5’9 and 155 pounds, there are concerns about whether he can withstand the grind of playing against much larger defenders night after night.

If everything pans out, Barriball would probably be a player who could provide secondary scoring in the Blues line-up in the future.

10. Ben Bishop, G, (7.0 C)

Drafted: 85th Overall, 2005

Well into the third year of a successful NCAA stint at Maine, goaltender Ben Bishop rounds out the first half of the list.

From a team success point of view, Bishop’s 2007-08 season hasn’t been quite up to par with his previous two college campaigns. The Black Bears have had trouble finding the win column for much of the year, and sit near the bottom of their conference. But Bishop has still managed to put up respectable stats (2.53 GAA, .918 save percentage), despite the poor showing by the team in front of him.

Standing over six and half feet tall, it’s not hard to figure out why Bishop is good at stopping pucks. His size naturally allows him to take up more space in the net than most goaltenders, and in combination with his great athleticism, makes him a tough goaltender to beat.

It’s tough to argue with results, and Bishop has 53 wins and counting in a Black Bears uniform, and his stock seems to have gradually risen over time. His status for next season is unknown, but it’s quite possible that he could sign a pro contract with St. Louis.  

11. Jonas Junland, D (7.0 C)

Drafted: 64th Overall, 2006

Young defenseman Jonas Junland has enjoyed a breakout season in the top league in Sweden. Not even 20 years of age when the season began, Junland has had no trouble keeping up in the SEL, where he played most of last season as well. The blueliner has found his offensive spark this season, with a very respectable 18 points in 48 games. That total places him in the top 20 in scoring amongst SEL defensemen. As usual, Junland has minded his own end of the ice with efficiency, with a plus-5 rating and 38 penalty minutes.

Junland plays a two-way game, relying on his blast from the point to create scoring chances. He skates well, and is big enough (6’2, 198 pounds) that he can take care of traffic in his own zone. Junland has been criticized for not playing the body enough, but the physical aspect of his game is beginning to emerge.

Junland had the opportunity to play in the Blues organization this year, but chose heading home to Sweden over the AHL. He will probably return to North America in the fall, and seems like a decent bet to be suiting up for Peoria next season.

12. Nikolai Lemtyugov, RW, (7.0 C)

Drafted: 219th Overall, 2005

At one time, it was unclear whether or not Russian forward Lemtyugov would ever make it over to North America due to the uncertainty surrounding the NHL’s transfer agreement with the Russian Federation. But the Blues did indeed sign him, and he has enjoyed a nice debut season in the AHL.

The 22-year-old winger is the leading scorer among players classified as prospects in Peoria. His 18-goal output has him just two markers off the team lead, and he has scored 30 points in 52 games overall. Lemtyugov also has 61 penalty minutes. He has been a bit of a streaky scorer throughout the season, with a pair of three-game goal streaks.

Lemtyugov plays a fairly rounded game. He has the skating stride and shooting prowess of a goal scorer, and has an evident physical side to his game. He is fairly responsible defensively, making him an attractive choice to have on the ice in close games due to his two-way ability.

So far, Lemtyugov has been kept in the minors to develop his game, but he likely isn’t too far off from a stint in NHL to see what he’s got at the highest level. He could have a chance to make the Blues line-up as early as next season.

13. Roman Polak, D, (6.5 C)

Drafted: 180th Overall, 2004

Young defenseman Roman Polak was hoping for another strong season in Peoria, but a broken ankle cost him a large chunk of games. He has recently returned to the Rivermen line-up after the injury occurred in early December.

An excellent rookie pro season in 2006-07 created expectations that Polak would vie for a spot on St. Louis’ blue line this season. But he didn’t have the greatest of training camps, so he began the season in Peoria, where he’d played 53 games in 2006-07. After a month or so of inconsistent play, Polak began to once again play like the hard-hitting shut-down defender he is known as. His injury occurred at an unfortunate time, but he will still have over a month to salvage what could have been a lost season. One of his team’s most valuable defensive presences, Polak has suited up for 25 games, recording five assists and 15 penalty minutes.

Polak’s solid defensive game a gritty play could make him a very serviceable depth defenseman at the NHL level. He can provide toughness to any blue line, and his big slap shot could make him an asset on the power play if need be.

14. Aaron Palushaj, RW (6.5 B)

Drafted: 44th Overall, 2007

A second-round choice from 2007, Palushaj is making a name for himself by way of a strong freshman season with the Michigan Wolverines. A recruit from the USHL’s Des Moines Buccaneers, Palushaj has been praised for playing a very complete game. He can fight trough traffic and get physical down low, and has very good passing abilities in the offensive zone. His shooting and stickhandling efficiency are also noticeable.

But while he has demonstrated scoring and playmaking abilities throughout his amateur career, the Wolverines probably didn’t expect him to be third in team scoring as a freshman. Palushaj has buried eight goals this year, and his been an excellent set-up man with 27 assists to his credit, tied for the team lead. His production has often been timely, and he is part of a Wolverines power play unit that has been highly effective for much of the season.

If the Northville, Michigan, native can maintain his scoring pace, there’s a chance he could be a nice addition on the second or third line in St. Louis a few years down the road. 

15. Cade Fairchild, D, (7.0 D)

Drafted: 96th Overall, 2007

Freshman blueliner Fairchild has been a solid contributor on the Minnesota defensive unit in 2007-08. The 19-year-old has been able to provide some offensive punch from the back end while still taking care of his defensive responsibilities for the most part. With 13 points, Fairchild is one of the team’s top-scoring defensemen, and his 11 assists have him right up there with the team leaders. A product of the USNTDP, Fairchild was chosen to play for Team USA at the recent World Junior Championship.

At 5’10, 186 pounds, Fairchild is on the small side for a defenseman. He makes up for this with his good skating, and has shown ability to join in the offensive rush. He isn’t known as a banger, but won’t be accused of being soft either.

In an NHL that has become a lot friendlier towards the skilled, but undersized player in recent years, there is definitely room for a player of Fairchild’s abilities. Where he will fit in over the long run is tough to pin-point, but there’s no reason to think he won’t make a good run at cracking the Blues roster one day.

16. Tomas Kana, LW (7.0 D)

Drafted: 31st Overall, 2006

To this point, Czech forward Tomas Kana’s career with the St. Louis organization has been a bit of a disappointment. The first player chosen in the second round of the 2006 draft, hopes were that Kana would come into training camp in the fall and make a run St. Louis’ NHL roster or become a solid player with Peoria. Instead, he showed up to prospect camp in poor condition and was clearly overmatched by many other players in his position. This earned him a ticket to the Alaska Aces of the ECHL to begin the season.

Kana struggled with the Aces, scoring just two goals in 12 games. He then returned to the Czech league where he has continued his offensive slump, with just two points in 13 games split between Vitkovice HC and Slovan HC.

Kana’s game is not based entirely around offense, but the complete lack of production at fairly low levels of hockey has to be a concern. He is a gritty player who can play tough minutes and kill penalties, but he needs to demonstrate the ability to do this at the AHL level to get his career back on track. Still just 20 years old, there is plenty of time left to develop, but with St. Louis’ depth at forward, he needs to pick up the pace to maintain his stock within the organization. 

17. Steve Wagner, D, (6.5 B)

Drafted: Undrafted free agent

It looks as though the Blues have found a solid prospect via free agency in the form of defenseman Steve Wagner. A graduate of Minnesota-Duluth, the 24-year-old Wagner was never drafted by an NHL team. The Blues signed him near the end of the 2006-07 season, and he appeared in 14 games with Peoria to finish the year.

This season, Wagner was a pleasant surprise in training camp and made the Blues’ opening night roster. A good combination of size and skill, Wagner produced two goals and six assists in 23 games before being sent down to the Rivermen. In Peoria, Wagner was an offensive catalyst from the back end, with a streak that saw him score points in eight out of nine games through January. Overall, he has dressed for 20 games in Peoria, bagging five goals and six assists in addition to providing stingy defense.

It looks like Wagner can be a solid depth defenseman in the NHL, perhaps the type that a coach could insert to spark a power play. 

18. Viktor Alexandrov, RW (7.0 D)

Drafted: 83rd Overall, 2004

A name perhaps forgotten by many, Alexandrov has re-emerged as a legitimate prospect after an explosive season in Russia. The native of Kazakhstan has always displayed good offensive skills. He is an aggressive skater who can handle the puck very well. Alexandrov moves swiftly through traffic, and doesn’t seem to be deterred by physical play, even though is not overly big.

In 2007-08, that skill seems to finally be paying some dividends. With 20 goals and 44 points, he is close to the top ten in scoring in the Russian Super League. A return to former club Metallurg Novokuznetsk seems to have reinvigorated the young sniper, who had just 19 points all of last season, a campaign split between SKA St. Petersburg and HK MDV.

Still only 22 years old, the former third-round draft choice has likely put himself back onto St. Louis’ radar screen. It would seem natural that the Blues will at least make an attempt to get Alexandrov over to North America in the near future.

19. Nicholas Drazenovic, C, (7.0 D)

Drafted: 171st Overall, 2005

First-year pro Drazenovic has added some offensive punch up the middle in Peoria. Drazenovic spent the last few years playing in the WHL with the Prince George Cougars where he was frequently one of their top scorers. He seems to have carried his scoring touch to the AHL this season, with 11 goals and 20 assists in 53 games. The 21-year-old center has been prone to putting up points in bunches, with 11 multi-point games already in the books. He has one game-winning goal so far.

Drazenovic wasn’t very big when he was drafted, but he has filled out nicely and is now listed at 6’1, 186 pounds. He is a fast skater, and his crafty stickhandling enables him to create space for himself. Drazenovic has a pretty good shot, but has shown himself to be more of a playmaker than a scorer so far this season.

The Blues have a wealth of skilled forwards coming down the prospect pipeline, so Drazenovic will have his work cut out for him as he tries to make the roster in coming years, but so far he’s off to a solid start.  

20. Travis Erstad, C, (6.5 C)

Drafted: 100th Overall, 2007

Recently drafted center Travis Erstad is the big man up the middle for the USHL’s Lincoln Stars. At 6’4, 185 pounds, Erstad is an imposing presence. He has a take no prisoners attitude, and will drop the gloves if necessary. He also possesses decent offensive instincts, though he hasn’t put up quite as many points as he’s capable of so far in 2007-08. Erstad is speedier than you’d expect from a player of his size, and he is a decent passer.
 
In 40 games with Lincoln, Erstad has produced seven goals and nine assists for 16 points, a good chunk of those coming on the power play. He has also accumulated 78 penalty minutes.

Erstad needs to refine his game and increase his defensive awareness, but with his good size and reasonable skill set, he could provide a good energy player in the pros one day.