St. Louis Blues boast much-improved prospect depth

By Suraj Sukumar
NHL: OCT 04 Preseason - Blues at Wild

Photo: Petteri Lindbohm is making the transition to North American hockey in 2014-15 with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves (courtesy of Brad Rempel/Icon Sportswire)

 

Last season, the St. Louis Blues looked quite thin down the middle and had very few standout players at other levels of hockey. After the 2014 NHL Draft, the Blues look much better at center with the additions of Ivan Barbashev and Robby Fabbri. They also continue to maintain strong depth at the goaltending position, as both Jordan Binnington and Jake Allen are considered high-level prospects.

At other positions, the Blues are still waiting for several players to take the next steps in their development. Left wing is now the weakest position, and there are several prospects at right wing who are still trying to find their role at the professional level. The defense remains relatively unchanged and, with a solid group at the NHL level, these prospects should have significant time to develop at other levels of hockey.

Left Wing

As mentioned, the left wing position is extremely thin and all of the Blues’ prospects at the position are far from an NHL career. Yannick Veilleux may be the most promising player at the left wing position, but has been given several opportunities in the past. Last season, Veilleux was the odd man out and was forced to play in the ECHL. He is now back with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL and has scored two goals and one assist in seven games so far.

Ryan Tesink is another forward with some upside, but injuries have always been a problem for him. After a long and tough junior season, Tesink has started the 2014-15 season with the Alaska Aces of the ECHL. In six games, Tesink has just one goal and is a minus-six. With this being his first season of professional hockey, he should be a member of the Aces for the whole season. Joining Tesink on the Aces is Zach Pochiro. The 20 year old played for the Kalamazoo Wings last season and will staying in the ECHL ranks for the second consecutive season.

After playing a season in the USHL, Mackenzie MacEachern joined the Big Ten Conference after deciding to attend Michigan State University. He had a solid freshman season with eight goals and four assists in 36 games. He should see an increased role in 2014-15 in his sophomore season.

The only junior player at the left wing position is Samuel Blais. Blais is one of the fresh faces in the Blues’ system and is currently playing his second season with the Victoriaville Tigres of the QMJHL. So far this season, Blais has scored eight goals and nine assists in 13 games. He should see a few more seasons at the junior level before making the jump to the pros.

Center

As mentioned, Barbashev and Fabbri were excellent picks for the Blues in 2014. They lacked significant offensive potential at center but were able to snag two very talented prospects to fill that void. Fabbri, who has been a leader for the Guelph Storm, has four goals and three assists in six games. He will remain a fundamental player for the Storm down the stretch and could be a player to watch during next year’s training camp. In Barbashev’s case, team success may be difficult for him to find but his offensive numbers will surely continue. In 13 games so far, Barbashev has a whopping 12 goals and seven assists. Both players have incredible skills sets and will have a great opportunity to make the NHL club next year.

Moving down the list, Maxim Letunov is another player at the junior level but is currently playing in the USHL for the Youngstown Phantoms. He too possesses good offensive skills but needs to work on his on defense. He was a minus-17 last year but is currently even through nine games. He has also scored six goals and two assists in that span. Look for Letunov to finish the season in the USHL.

The Blues have only one prospect coming out of the college ranks. Max Gardiner, who was drafted back in 2010, had a season to forget last year where he scored just one assist in 22 games for Penn State. As a senior, Gardiner has already surpassed those totals by scoring a goal and an assist in seven games. On the other hand, Maxwell Tardy has graduated from the college ranks and recently signed with the Pensacola Ice Flyers of the Southern Professional Hockey League. He has yet to play a game and seems a ways away from a career in the NHL. 

Right Wing

The Blues have several right wingers fighting for spots at the professional level. Ty Rattie, Dmitrij Jaskin, Cody Beach and Sebastian Wannstrom are all members of the Chicago Wolves. While Beach is more of your hard-nosed, physical player, the other three possess significant offensive potential and are developing quite well in the AHL.

Rattie currently leads the Wolves in scoring with four goals and two assists through seven games. He always had incredible offensive instincts, but his size will continue to be questioned until he proves himself at the next level. Wannstrom, who finished strong in the ECHL last season, currently has two goals and three assists in five games. Jaskin may be the most intriguing forward of the three given his versatility, and he scored a goal and three assists in four games before going down with an injury. If the big club is in need of help down the wing, expect one of these three to get the call-up.

The Blues also have three players currently in the junior ranks. Jaedon Descheneau has developed very well throughout his junior career but, similar to Rattie, will continue to be questioned for his size. He put up 98 points in 70 games last season and will be playing his final year with the Kootenay Ice in 2014-15. So far this year, Descheneau has seven goals and four assists through 13 games.

C.J. Yakimowicz is still a bit of a youngster and has a bright junior career ahead of him. He is currently in his second year with the London Knights and has looked good in 13 games so far. He has managed six goals and two assists and should be able to improve on these totals as his career progresses.

Last on the list, Sam Kurker has been an up-and-down player over the last few seasons but seems to have found a home with the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL. After leaving Boston University due to playing time, Kurker joined the Indiana Ice last season and has looked great in his second year of junior hockey in Sioux City. In nine games so far, Kurker has five goals and two assists. All three players have to potential to finish very strong in 2014-15.

Playing in the KHL, Sergei Andronov is the only right winger currently in Europe. He played several seasons with CSKA Moscow before making his way to North America but has returned for 2014-15. He is not the most gifted player offensively but could be a solid two-way player. It seems he will finish out the year in Russia before deciding when to return to North America.

Dwyer Tschantz, who was drafted in the seventh round of the 2014 Draft, left the USHL ranks to attend Cornell University. The ECAC season has not started but it seems Tschantz has earned a spot and will be monitored closely throughout the year.

Defense

While the Blues do not have prospects developing at the NHL level, there are a good group of players at other levels of hockey. David Shields could be the most consistent of the bunch after performing very well last season. He has picked up where he left off and should be a significant part of the Wolves’ blueline. Joel Edmundson will also have an opportunity in the AHL but has started the season on the injury list. Petteri Lindbohm, who spent most of his young career in the SM-liiga, has finally made his way to North America and, after playing a game with the Blues, was sent down to the AHL. He currently has a goal and an assist in his first six games.

Jani Hakanpaa is in a bit of a similar situation, as he got sent down from the Wolves before playing a game and will now be a part of the Quad City Mallards of the ECHL. He has incredible size and could become a good shutdown defender with his physical play. Nevertheless, this will be a career-defining season for all three blueliners.

Some of the Blues’ best defensive prospects are currently in the college ranks. Jordan Schmaltz still remains the best defensive prospect for the Blues and is currently playing in his third year of college hockey at the University of North Dakota. So far this season, Schmaltz continues to impressive with a goal and three assists in seven games.

Colton Parayko is another third year player in the NCAA and has demonstrated consistent offensive numbers throughout his hockey career. After scoring 26 points in 37 games last year, Parayko has already scored two goals and three assists in eight games.

On the opposite end, Jake Walman is currently a freshman at Providence College and has just one assist in six games. He was one of the best pure skaters in the draft and his skills should come along nicely over the next four years.

Santeri Saari has been all over the European circuit. He started in the SM-liiga, was supposed to play in the KHL this season, but now suits up for Bofors IK of the second-tier Swedish league. In 12 games, he has just three assists but is still one of the youngest players on the team. He should finish the season in Europe before considering other options.

Last, but most certainly not least, Tommy Vannelli is the Blues’ only defensive prospect at the junior level but is a step ahead of the competition. After scoring 14 goals and 27 assists as a rookie last year, Vannelli has followed up that performance by scoring five goals and two assists in 10 games. He should be able to maintain this pace and finish with very impressive numbers.

Goaltenders

Arguably the strongest position in the Blues’ system, Jordan Binnington leads the way as the Blues’ top prospect. He has finally been given the chance to start for the Chicago Wolves. Last year, he performed well in the ECHL, which has helped him prepare for this season. However, in just two games so far, Binnington has already allowed six goals. Nevertheless, he is a still a good bet to start the majority of games in 2014-15.

Jake Allen has officially made the jump to the NHL but is stuck behind the red-hot Brian Elliot. He has the skill and has performed well in the NHL before, but as long as Elliot continues to perform Allen will likely see a limited role. With that said, Allen has made the most of his three games in net, going 2-1 with a 1.34 goals against average and .944 save percentage. Look for him to continue to grow as an NHL goaltender this season.

The Blues also have two goalies from Europe, Niklas Lundstrom and Ville Husso. Lundstrom made the move to the United States for this season but has been atrocious so far this year. He has played in five ECHL games and has maintained a ghastly .850 save percentage and 4.16 goals against average. On the other hand, Husso is still playing in Europe for Helsinki and has been lights out for the famous SM-liiga squad. His 2.17 goals against average and .917 save percentage in 17 games are certainly encouraging early on.

Follow Suraj Sukumar on Twitter at @Sukumar_S87