The St. Louis Blues find themselves in an enviable position as a franchise with one of the strongest prospect pools in the National Hockey League. After a 25-year playoff streak ended in 2006, the team’s crop of young talent has been bolstered by top-five selections at the NHL Entry Draft in two of the last three years. Combine that with shrewd drafting in the later rounds and the end result is a group of future NHL stars.
Currently the only potential weakness in their stable of youth is on the wings as most of the elite talent is concentrated on the blue line and down the middle.
The recent graduation of David Perron has left the Blues’ prospect ranks thin on the left side as Nikolai Lemtyugov and Jay Barriball are the only high profile players currently listed for the position. However, a deep list of centers who are capable of filling a role on the wing means the team is not viewing this as a weakness.
Lemtyugov and Barriball are both considered offensive wingers, but appear to be headed in opposite directions. The 22-year-old Lemtyugov is now playing his second year of North American hockey after coming over from Russia and his stock is definitely on the rise, while 21-year-old Barriball is coming off a poor season with the University of Minnesota and has a lot of ground to cover in order to overcome his diminutive stature of 5’9, 155 lbs. He has eight points in eight games so far this season.
Definitely one of the team’s strong points, the center position is rich with offensive flair, defensive prowess, size and skill and future leaders. Headlined by Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie, both players have spent time in the NHL this season. Twenty-year-old Berglund won a full-time roster spot and has adapted nicely to the role with four goals and four assists in 12 games to start the year. Berglund is poised to become a star in North America and continues to add mass to his large frame of 6’4. Oshie can fit in just about anywhere in the forward ranks but prefers to line up at center. He has four points in 10 games.
Nineteen-year-old Danish forward Lars Eller also has a lot of great offensive upside, but one of the most attractive parts of his game is a solid two-way ability and maturity far beyond his years. Eller is currently playing for Vastra Frolunda HC Goteborg in the Swedish Elite League, but is expected to transition to North American ice next year. On the opposite end of the spectrum it’s centers like Philip McRae who are gaining recognition for excellence in other areas of the game. In his third season with the London Knights (OHL), the 18-year-old McRae is building a reputation as a faceoff specialist. A veteran of the U.S. National Under-18 Team and world junior squad, this playmaking center is a testament to the great depth that the Blues have at the position.
Other notables include Nicholas Drazenovic and Jori Lehtera. Twenty-one-year-old Drazenovic is a speedy and creative forward currently playing his second year of professional hockey with the Peoria Rivermen and Lehtera is a 20-year-old power forward who remains in Finland.
Right wing is another position where the Blues are lacking in quantity but definitely not in quality. An incredibly creative playmaking winger in Aaron Palushaj heads this group. The 19-year-old was a first liner as a freshman with the University of Michigan last year and is already off to a great start this season with 16 points in just 10 games. He was drafted 44th overall in 2007 and could potentially be one of the steals of that draft.
Simon Hjalmarsson is the only other right winger in the Blues’ top 20. A versatile forward, the 19-year-old is currently playing his hockey with Borås HC in Sweden’s second highest-level league, Allsvenskan.
Even with the graduation of Erik Johnson, defense is still the deepest position in the Blues prospect pool. This impressive group is headlined by 2008 first-round selection Alex Pietrangelo. The 18-year-old Pietrangelo is offensive-minded and thanks to Johnson’s injury has immediately walked into active NHL duty. He has one assist in seven games and is +1.
Roman Polak and Steve Wagner are two other prospects who have played in almost every game for St. Louis so far this season. Polak is a bruising defender who loves to throw around his thick frame and won’t see a lot of power play time in his career. Twenty-four-year-old undrafted Wagner, on the other hand, found moderate offensive success at both the college and AHL level, but is struggling to find his identity in St. Louis. He battled with injuries last year but his great offensive instincts make him an intriguing prospect with a good upside.
Jonas Junland is another fringe NHL player at this point who is making his North American debut this season. He suffered a shoulder injury in a Blues preseason game and has since played six games with the Rivermen, but he could get some time with the big club before the year comes to a close.
Ian Cole and Cade Fairchild are both coming up through the NCAA. Cole is a first-round selection from 2007 and is already proving to be a huge physical force with Notre Dame at only 19 years old. He also has good offensive upside and will develop into an all-around presence on the ice. Meanwhile, Fairchild is an offensive specialist who is off to a blistering start with the University of Minnesota, scoring nine points in just eight games.
There was a time when Marek Schwarz was the heir apparent to the throne in St. Louis, but the picture isn’t as black and white as it used to be. The emergence of Ben Bishop and the stagnation of Schwarz changed the landscape entirely. Twenty-one-year-old Bishop is considered by some to be the Blues future No. 1 keeper and Schwarz could be the property of another NHL franchise by next year. Bishop has played in two NHL games this season, once as the starter, before leaving the game with a lower body injury. The keeper is the tallest in NHL history at 6’7 and has surprising athleticism for a man of his size.
Adding to their depth, the Blues drafted two goaltenders this past June, most notably was Jake Allen, currently playing for the Montreal Juniors (QMJHL). He is also expected to be a starter in the NHL someday.
The team is in the middle of a youth-led revival and after missing the playoffs for the last three years it won’t be long before things start to turn around. The franchise is implementing the same strategy that got the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup finals last year — building a talented and youthful core through the draft.