While the St. Louis Blues have not won a Stanley Cup, the current team they have put together seems to be on the right track. There are very few holes on the NHL team, but they are running out of resources at the lower levels of hockey.
When you consider most of their prospects have been drafted outside of the first round, or are not very high in the top 30, the Blues have always been able to find the right players with their picks.
Once Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko made the jump to full-time NHL players, the Blues level of prospects, especially at forward, lowered significantly. They have a solid group of goaltenders in the system but have a crop of skaters who are far from NHL ready. The current Blues squad is already full of talent, but with some top players moving on, the Blues will be a primary team to watch at the 2014 NHL Draft.
Top 10 Prospects:
The Blues were edged by the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL playoffs but are well on their way to becoming one of the most talented teams in the league. In terms of needs, there are very few, but the depth at center is definitely questionable in comparison to the rest of the team. Furthermore, the Blues are likely to part ways with Steve Ott, Brenden Morrow and a few other NHL regulars, which will open several key spots on the roster.
The only centers signed through this offseason are David Backes, Joakim Lindstrom and Maxim Lapierre, with Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka becoming restricted free agents. When you consider the current pool of drafted centers for the Blues, it is absolutely necessary that they find a way to bring in some much needed talent down the middle. Players like Jaden Schwartz and T.J. Oshie have experience playing at center, but they seem to be fitting in quite well down the wing.
With a full roster of defensemen and goaltenders both in the NHL and in the pipeline, it seems clear that the Blues should be chasing talent down the middle during the upcoming draft.
The Blues have the most obvious depth at the goaltending position. Brian Elliott has been re-signed through 2016-17, and he will likely be backed up by Jake Allen. This season, Jake Allen continued his run as the AHL starter for the Chicago Wolves (Peoria Rivermen last season) and led them to the second round of the AHL playoffs before getting swept by the Toronto Marlies. The Blues also have Jordan Binnington who is more than ready to make the jump to the AHL, after dominating the ECHL in his first pro season of hockey. Niklas Lundstrom is also slated to make his North American debut next season. This is a big reason why the Blues are not worried about losing Miller, as it gives them a major piece to play with as they try to replenish their coffers.
The Blues’ defense is also quite strong, with a full squad signed and ready to go for next season. In terms of prospects, Tommy Vannelli (WHL) and Jordan Schmaltz (NCAA) stand out as the top two defensive players in the pipeline, with several young players getting their chance at the AHL level. With many of these players requiring time to develop, there is a high possibility that most of them will have another season to play together in the AHL.
The biggest hole in the Blues' pipeline is, by far, at the center position. It is not that the Blues have not tried to find talent through the draft and trades, but the players have been extremely unsuccessful at transitioning to the pros. Players like Philip McRae and Evgeni Grachev failed to make a splash in North America in recent years and are now likely full-time players in Europe.
When you look at the current crop of centers in the Blues' system, there are several names but few who can have an impact any time soon. The highest-ranked center in the pipeline is Max Gardiner, who looked good in his first year at Penn State but failed to perform in 2013-14 at the college level. With that said, the Blues could benefit greatly from either trading for, or drafting, some quality young centers at the draft.
The Blues have maintained a pretty similar trend in their recent draft picks under Doug Armstrong. They have selected several European-based players and have also looked to the college ranks for talent. Two of their most notable first round draft picks, Schwartz and Schmaltz, were bound for the NCAA when drafted and seem to be key players for the future. While Schwartz has been proving himself in the NHL for the past two seasons, Schmaltz has been a key contributor for the University of North Dakota, scoring 24 points in 41 games this season.
In the past five years, 10 players have come out of Europe while six players have come from the college ranks. More importantly, with only four first round picks in the past five years, the Blues have drafted Schmaltz (25th overall in 2012), Schwartz (14th overall in 2010), Tarasenko (16th overall in 2010), and David Rundblad (17th overall in 2009, eventually traded to Ottawa for the Tarasenko draft pick). The Blues also have their fair share of Canadian Hockey League players, most notably from the WHL (nine in past five years). The Blues have not selected a player from the OHL since 2011, but have selected four in the past five years, two of which were Binnington and Alex Pietrangelo. With that said, the Blues have continued to find success at all levels of hockey, and it would not be surprising to see them stick with the same strategy in 2014.
The Blues have a whopping nine picks in 2014 and they are as follows: 21st, 33rd (from Edmonton), 52nd, 82nd, 110th (from Tampa Bay), 124th (from Calgary), 172nd, 176th (from Boston), 202nd.
The Blues acquired the 33rd overall pick from Edmonton through the David Perron for Magnus Paajarvi deal. The 110th pick was acquired by trading B.J. Crombeen, along with a multi-pick swap, to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Blues received the 124th pick for Kris Russell from the Calgary Flames and the 176th pick from the Boston Bruins for Wade Redden.
The Blues gave away their fourth round pick, along with their seventh in 2013, to the Nashville Predators for their fourth round pick in 2013. The Blues fifth round pick will go to the Lightning as a result of the Crombeen deal.
Hockey’s Future Staff Mock Draft Results:
21. Jakub Vrana, RW, Linkoping (SHL)
A dynamic scoring winger, Vrana will bring a much needed boost to the Blues’ pipeline. Another European prospect, Vrana has been developing in Sweden and has been nothing short of spectacular for his age. He played 24 games for the under-20 team and scored 25 points, which got him the promotion to the parent club. He played in 24 games and scored two goals and one assist. More importantly, Vrana played on both the U18 and U20 Czech Republic teams and was a force at both levels.
He is a quick skater and has impressive goal-scoring ability, which makes him a very attractive prospect. He will be spending the following few seasons in Sweden to improve his defensive game and gain some physical strength.