Blues Top 20 prospects, Fall 2008

By Brad Touchette

Top 20 at a glance

1. (NR) Alex Pietrangelo, D – 8.5C
2. (3) Patrik Berglund, C – 8B
3. (2) T.J. Oshie, C – 8B
4. (5) David Perron, LW – 7.5A
5. (4) Lars Eller, LW – 7.5B
6. (7) Ian Cole, D – 7.5B
7. (10) Ben Bishop, G – 7.5C
8. (12) Nikolai Lemtyugov, RW – 7B
9. (17) Steve Wagner, D – 7B
10. (14) Aaron Palushaj, RW – 7B
11. (15) Cade Fairchild, D – 7C
12. (6) Marek Schwarz, G – 7C
13. (19) Nicholas Drazenovic, C – 7C
14. (NR) Philip McRae C – 7C
15. (NR) Jake Allen, G – 7C
16. (13) Roman Polak, D – 7C
17. (11) Jonas Junland, D –7C
18. (8) Simon Hjalmarsson, LW – 6.5C
19. (9) Jay Barriball, C – 6.5D
20. (NR) Jori Lehtera, C – 6C
      
Last season, Hockey’s Future ranked the Blues No. 1 for being the NHL organization with the best upcoming talent.  The No. 4 overall draft pick of 2008 vaults to the top of this impressive stable of young talent.
      

1.  Alex Pietrangelo, D – OHL Niagara

Drafted:  Round 1, 4th overall, 2008
Stats:  6’3, 206 lbs
Born:  January 18, 1990

At this year’s draft, the general consensus was that no team could go wrong with any of the top three defensemen available.  Yet, some were saying that Alex Pietrangelo may have actually been a steal at No. 4.  Most people attributed his dropping to four from having a herniated spleen and a bout with mononucleosis. 

Still, many in the Blues organization and their fans are hoping they’ll soon witness the second coming of Chris Pronger/Al MacInnis once Pietrangelo is ready for the NHL and joins Erik Johnson on the blue line. Pietrangelo has all the tools – size, strength, skills, toughness, and a decisive instinct for putting the puck on the net.  The only concern is his health, and the Blues believe that last season was merely a fluke and that this will not be an issue moving forward.
      

2.  Patrik Berglund, C – J20 Vasteras IK

Drafted:  Round 1, 25th overall, 2006
Stats:  6’4, 199 lbs
Born:  June 2, 1988

Last year at the Blues development camp, Berglund was a skinny kid with a look of uncertainty.  No one questioned his talents or abilities, but some were worried about his confidence level.  Berglund answered those concerns at this year’s development camp.

Last month, Berglund was bigger, thicker, and much more comfortable with his surroundings.  In the span of one season, he has matured significantly, both physically and mentally.  Perhaps the strongest evidence of this was at this year’s World Junior Championship, where this year he garnered seven points in six games.  At the same tournament last year, he had three points in seven games.

He is projected to spend most of the season as the Blues No. 2 center.
      

3.  T.J. Oshie, C/W – NCAA University of North Dakota

Drafted:  Round 1, 24th overall, 2005
Stats:  6’0, 188 lbs
Born:  December 23, 1986

Possibly the most eagerly awaited prospect, T.J. Oshie’s professional career is finally about to start.  In the development camp last month, Oshie’s hard-nosed style, his knack for driving to the net, and his highly-developed passing and scoring abilities were on full display.  It appeared during the camp that the “smaller version of Roenick” comparisons were well-founded.

Though Oshie has spent most of his career playing center, most people within the Blues organization expect to move him to right wing so that he can exploit his fearless hitting and still be in position to use his scoring touch.  Whatever position he plays for the Blues this season, expect him to get noticed every time he’s on the ice.

The only concern with Oshie is his two run-ins with the police last season (one for being underage in a bar/restaurant after 8pm, the other for urinating in a dorm elevator).  While these were very minor offenses, they suggest that Oshie might have some maturing to do before the Blues can give him the kind of responsibility that is normally given to a team’s star. 
      

4.  David Perron, RW – QMJHL Lewiston

Drafted:  Round 1, 26th overall, 2007
Stats:  5’11, 183 lbs
Born:  May 28, 1988

Perron had a very good rookie season in the NHL. He was always aggressive with his offense, regularly dazzling with his stick work, and sporadic with his defensive responsibilities.  But as the season went on, Coach Andy Murray gave Perron more and more responsibility, and he responded with more consistently solid performances.

When he returned to St. Louis for the development camp this past June, Perron returned as a different player.  Yes, he had added muscle, but his maturity really seemed to have skyrocketed.  He was a leader on the ice, helping the newest prospects get acclimated to the Blues environment, and he was poised, confident, and enthusiastic when dealing with the media off the ice.

If Perron continues to develop his all-around game and continues to display the kind of maturity and leadership he showed this past June, the Blues could have a legitimate star on their hands.
      

5.  Lars Eller, C – HockeyAllsvenskan Borås HC

Drafted:  Round 1, 13th overall, 2007
Stats:  6’0, 198 lbs
Born:  May 8, 1989

It was a down year points-wise for Eller, only earning 18 points in 32 games last season.  But he played for two different teams spanning three different leagues over the course of the 2007-08 season, so this is probably not too unexpected.  Eller still showed his playmaking ability, smooth passing, great vision, and solid defensive instincts, the results just weren’t as prolific as they have been in the past.

His game got stronger as the season progressed though, and Eller finished the WJCs with six points in six games.  He also played in the World Championships and collected two assists in six games.

As before, Eller is still projected to be that solid two-way center that the Blues organization needs.  He is offensively talented enough to always be a scoring threat, and defensive-minded enough to take on other teams top lines, if needed.  If he continues to develop as expected, he should be the Blues No. 2 center in the next few years after Berglund eventually moves into the No. 1 center role.
      

6.  Ian Cole, D – NCAA Notre Dame

Drafted:  Round 1, 18th overall, 2007
Stats:  5’11, 215 lbs
Born:  February 21, 1989
 
As far as physical specimens go, Cole is a man among boys.  Already with 215 lbs of muscle on a 5’11 frame at 19 years of age, Cole uses all of his muscle to punish the opposition in his own end.  But Cole is more than a punishing defenseman.  He also has a very good outlet pass, an instinct for joining the rush, and no fear of putting a shot on goal.  In his first full season with Notre Dame, Cole racked up eight goals and 20 points in 43 games.  He was also named CCHA Rookie of the Month this past March.

Cole was also part of this Notre Dame team that played in its first-ever NCAA Frozen Four, where he contributed a goal and two assists in the four games.

Cole has the size, the tools, and the instincts to one day become a game-changing defenseman in the NHL.  If he continues to develop his skills, he will become a complete package.
      

7.  Ben Bishop, G – NCAA University of Maine

Drafted:  Round 1, 18th overall, 2007
Stats:  6’7, 210 lbs
Born: November 21, 1986

Bishop had an inconsistent season this past year with the University of Maine.  Although he maintained an impressive .920 save percentage, he ended up with a 13-18-3 record.  Bishop’s unusual height, 6’7, is a great advantage as he is able to cover more of the net, and he has unusually quick reflexes for an athlete of his size.

Bishop decided to leave Maine this year and turn pro for the upcoming season. He is expected to begin the season in Peoria to begin to get him acclimated to the speed of professional hockey.  Although he needs to work on his consistency and relying more on positioning than pure athleticism, his raw athletic ability and his size make him the clear favorite to eventually ascend to the NHL. 
      

8.  Nikolai Lemtyugov, RW – AHL Peoria

Drafted:  Round 7, 219th overall, 2005
Stats:  6’1, 207 lbs
Born: January 15, 1986

Lemtyugov truly began turning heads in the Blues organization midway through last season in Peoria, particularly when he tallied 11 goals and 18 points during a 24-game stretch.  Although he wasn’t able to maintain that level of production through the remainder of the season, Lemtyugov showed he could compete and succeed in his first year of North American hockey.

There is an outside chance he could make the NHL team this year, but most feel like he could use a little more time in the AHL to solidify his consistency.  However, of all the prospective wingers in the Blues organization not named Perron, Lemtyugov is the player with the most upside, the most potential, and likely the best chance of making the jump to the NHL this coming season.
      

9.  Steve Wagner, D – AHL Peoria

Drafted:  Undrafted, signed as UFA 2007
Stats:  6’2, 190 lbs
Born: March 6, 1984

Wagner left his Minnesota-Mankato team prior to last year to sign a contract with the Blues.  During training camp and pre-season, he showed enough poise and offensive mindset to make the Blues roster out of training camp.  And he started the season strong, scoring one goal and three assists in his first six games.  But then his production fell off, tallying only one more goal and three assists in his next eight games.  Then his defensive skills began to falter as well.  He spent the next two months shuttling between St. Louis and Peoria, never registering another point for St. Louis.  Wagner broke his leg on Feb. 13, thereby ending his first pro season.

It was likely a mistake to bring Wagner up so quickly; he wasn’t physically ready for the grind of games night-in, night-out that the NHL demands.  But his hockey smarts, his offensive instincts, and his overall speed make him a very attractive prospect.  If he comes to camp ready, he should make the team as the No. 4 or 5 defenseman.  His upside is too strong, but it will still depend on if he is capable of handling the grind.

10.  Aaron Palushaj, RW – NCAA University of Michigan

Drafted:  Round 2, 44th overall, 2007
Stats:  6’0, 185 lbs
Born: September 7, 1989

Palushaj remains under the radar despite high potential. Ten goals and 44 points in 43 games as a freshman is very good, but he also finished second in the nation in overall assists and legendary Michigan coach Red Berenson played him on the No. 1 line and first-unit power play – as a freshman. The Blues might have a special player in Palushaj.

Even though he plays right wing, Palushaj is more of a playmaker than a scorer.  He is incredibly creative with the puck, and prides himself on constantly working on his stickhandling.  His skills were on display at the development camp in June, and were impressive.  His only downside is that he loves making a great pass so much that he does not shoot often enough, and even his teammates tell him this.

His stats may be a little inflated from playing on a line with all upperclassmen, but his upcoming sophomore season should help clarify whether or not he is the real deal. 
      

11.  Cade Fairchild, D – NCAA University of Minnesota

Drafted:  Round 4, 96th overall, 2007
Stats:  5’10, 190 lbs
Born: January 15, 1989

After two seasons of playing with the U.S. National Development Team, Fairchild arrived at the University of Minnesota and turned heads immediately, scoring 10 points in the first 13 games of the season. He cooled off significantly after that, finishing with a total of 15 points in 40 games, but the team as a whole struggled this season along with him.

Despite the cool off, Fairchild was still named to the WCHA’s All-Rookie team.  His offensive instincts got him to Minnesota, he has excellent vision, and he excels at making that good first pass.  His drawback is his size, but if he can recapture his scoring touch from the USNTDP days, his size can be overlooked.
      

12.  Marek Schwarz, G – AHL Peoria

Drafted:  Round 1, 17th overall, 2004
Stats:  6’0, 180 lbs
Born: April 1, 1986

After a stint in a Czech league three years ago where he found himself playing the role of backup to an aging veteran, Schwarz returned to North America in 2006-07 and spent the majority of time in Peoria where he compiled a 19-13-0 record in 34 games with a pedestrian 2.76 GAA.  Schwarz was only so-so that season, but the team assumed it was mostly due to him not getting any real playing time in from the season before.  But after his 2007-08 performance, Schwarz is now being looked at much more skeptically.

He appeared in two games for the Blues last season, allowing six goals in those two games and going 0-1.  But the disturbing part of Schwarz’s season was his play in Peoria.  While there, his GAA rose (2.79), his record diminished (14-14-2), and his overall technique and form deteriorated to the point that he was demoted to the Alaska Aces of the ECHL for six games. 

Schwarz is only 22 years old, so don’t expect the Blues to simply give up on the young netminder. But, by the same token, organizations expect their players to steadily progress, not regress.  There are quiet rumblings starting to percolate about Schwarz, questioning if he has the work ethic and tough-mindedness needed to become an NHL goalie. Schwarz isn’t out of time, but he will likely need to start turning it around this upcoming season if he hopes to be considered in any long-term plans from the Blues.
      

13.  Nicholas Drazenovic, C – AHL Peoria

Drafted:  Round 5, 171st overall, 2005
Stats:  6’1”, 182 lbs
Born: January 14, 1987

Drazenovic’s production dropped a little last season from previous years, but it was his first year in the AHL.  Still, he tallied 16 goals and 42 points in 69 games. 

Drazenovic’s forte is speed. He is at his best when flying down the ice and attacking the opposition’s blue line.  His creativity with the puck and vision on the ice has many within the organization wondering how good this kid can be.  While he is still slated to play in Peoria again this year, there is potential within this centerman.  Depending on how well he harnesses his creativity and uses his skill, the Blues could have a future star on their hands.
      

14.  Philip McRae, C – OHL London

Drafted:  Round 2, 33rd overall, 2008
Stats:  6’2”, 189 lbs
Born: March 15, 1990

This past season for the London Knights, McRae put up 46 points in 66 games. He was also named to the Team USA U-18 roster this past June.

McRae has succeeded at every level he’s reached so far – he has great vision and a real knack for making that great set-up pass.  His one issue, however, is his skating.  Considering all the recent rule changes in the NHL, this has to improve if he’s going to make the Blues roster.
      

15.  Jake Allen, G – QMJHL St. John’s

Drafted:  Round 2, 34rd overall, 2008
Stats:  6’2, 175 lbs
Born: August 7, 1990

Allen had modest stats in QMJHL last season, going 9-12, with a 3.14 GAA, but what makes him stand out is how dominant he is with highly-talented defensemen in front of him.  Allen anchored Team Canada’s goaltending duties and led the U18 team to the gold medal last year, earning a record of 6-1-0 with a 1.43 GAA.  He was also named MVP of the U18 tournament.  He also just began training again with Team Canada’s Junior squad again in late July. 

Considering how he performed last year against the best U18 players in the world, there’s no reason to question his ability.  Allen seems to have all the athleticism and puck-handling skills he needs to develop into, at the very least, a starting NHL goalie.  But as it is with most goalies, it’s going to take a few years of seasoning.  Don’t expect to see him in a Blues jersey anytime soon, but his future looks very bright.
      

16.  Roman Polak, D – AHL Peoria

Drafted:  Round 6, 180th overall, 2004
Stats:  6’1, 198 lbs
Born: April 28, 1986

Polak appears ready to play in the NHL this coming season. He is solid on his feet, a punishing checker, and a defense-first defenseman. He is not the flashy, high-potency offensive-minded defensemen like the many others in the Blues pool of prospects.  Polak is much more of a Barrett Jackman type of player – only Polak has more size.  He plays stifling defense, excels at clearing the crease, and is most comfortable killing penalties and clearing the zone.

While you won’t see Polak’s name on the scorer’s sheet very often, that’s not his role.  His role is to stop you from scoring, and to hurt you every time you come near his goal.  Defensemen of his ilk are just as valuable as the high-scoring ones.
      

17.  Jonas Junland, D – Elitserien Linköpings HC

Drafted:  Round 3, 64th overall, 2006
Stats:  6’1, 198 lbs
Born: November 15, 1987

Junland recently signed a contract with the Blues and will play North American hockey for the first time this season.  If there’s any one facet of Junland’s game, it’s his hands.  Junland is deft with his passes and highly accurate with his shot.  In the low-scoring Swedish Elite League last year, he had three goals and 20 points in 52 games.

Junland also has good speed and great vision. He will likely play in Peoria this year, but it probably won’t be too long before he gets his shot at the NHL level.  It will all depend on how quickly he gets acclimated to the North American style of hockey.

 

18.  Simon Hjalmarsson, LW – Vastra Frolunda HC Goteborg

Drafted:  Round 2, 39th overall, 2007
Stats:  5’11, 169 pounds
Born: February 1, 1989

Hjalmarsson continues to develop and impress his coaches.  He seems to have all the tools to eventually develop into an NHL winger – good speed, a strong shot, and a creative playmaker.  Along with all those skills, Hjalmarsson has a reputation for having an outstanding work ethic, a team-first attitude, and a willingness to gladly take any assignment given to him.  On his current team, he is not only a scoring threat, but a reliable penalty killer as well.

His one drawback is his lack of strength and weight.  Hjalmarsson absolutely must get stronger and put on more muscle if he ever hopes to reach the NHL. 
      

19.  Jay Barriball, C – NCAA University of Minnesota

Drafted:  Round 7, 203rd overall, 2006
Stats:  5’9, 155 lbs
Born: May 27, 1987

This past season, Barriball embodied the “sophomore slump.”  His freshman year stats were certainly impressive – 20 goals and 43 points in 44 games.  But last year, he only managed 6 goals and 21 points in 41 games.

Barriball already had question marks surrounding his viability as an NHL player due to his size. At 5’9 and only 155 lbs, he is not exactly an intimidating presence on the ice. Previously, his strong scoring ability helped people overlook his size issues. But when his scoring touch vanished this past season, people became less optimistic about his future.

Obviously, Barriball has the ability to be a prolific scorer. He also has great speed, a high level of agility, and on-ice smarts. All these skills can help him overcome his height disadvantage. But the questions remain. Can he put it back together for his junior year at Minnesota?  Can he regain his scoring touch?  As of right now, Barriball’s size and lack of recent production keep him a question mark.
      

20.  Jori Lehtera, C – SM-liiga Tappara Tampere

Drafted:  Round 3, 65th overall, 2008
Stats:  6’2, 191 plbs
Born: December 23, 1987

Lehtera is a gifted hockey player – speed, strength, scoring touch, vision, and simple innate ability.  Last season, he finished in the Finnish Jr. A league with 13 goals and 42 points in 54 games.

There were concerns about Lehtera early in his career which were due to his natural ability.  He was criticized for not being a complete player, or very team-oriented.  He was considered a person who relied too heavily on his natural ability alone. However, in the past two years, Lehtera seems to have shed that reputation.  His attitude has changed and he has been focusing on rounding out his game to become a more complete player.

He is under contract with his Finnish team, Tappara Tampere, until 2010.  But if he continues to develop the rest of his game, the Blues could have a very strong, talented center in their not-too-distant future.