After making their first ever Calder Cup playoff appearance last season, the Rivermen will come into this season with arguably a more talented team. Last season ended in a Game 7 heartbreaking loss to the Houston Aeros, but it’s onward and upward. The Rivermen have added players from the Blues very deep prospect pool, and if they are not frequently recalled, Peoria will definitely have a more dynamic offense this season.
Peoria comes into this season without its top two scorers from last season, Steve Regier and Trent Whitfield. However, coming into the mix are talented scorers Lars Eller, Aaron Palushaj and Brett Sonne.
Eller recorded 29 points in 48 games with Frolunda last season, but coming down with mononucleosis kept him from making any impact with the Blues during training camp. If healthy, Eller will likely light up the AHL. Palushaj scored two goals in four games with the Rivermen after signing a professional contract at the end of last season. The former Michigan Wolverine is gritty, talented and could be a offensive powerhouse with the Rivermen. Sonne is coming off a remarkable season with the WHL Calgary Hitmen, where he had 100 points in 62 games. Sonne will need to round out his game in the AHL.
To go with the youngsters, the Rivermen also are bringing back veterans Yan Stasny and Julian Talbot to help out on the offensive side of the ice. It is possible that free-agent signee Derek Armstrong could be sent to Peoria when the Blues make their final cuts. First-year player Anthony Peluso is very aggressive and uses his big body and offensive tools to chip in goals. Newcomer Barry Tallackson had a good camp with the Blues and will fight to make an impact on the offensive side as well. To help on the defensive side, Peoria has Ryan Reaves, Adam Cracknell, Cam Paddock, Chris Porter and Nicholas Drazenovic, who are all solid two-way players. The Rivermen also signed Mitch Love to take over the enforcer duties.
If this team’s offense stays intact, they will not only challenge for a playoff spot, but also the West Division title.
The Rivermen’s strong play last season was in large part due to the team’s effectiveness in its own zone. There is no reason to think they can’t keep it up this season.
The Rivermen defense has a lot of potential, but a lot of question marks. Justin Fletcher, Jonas Junland, Steve Wagner and Danny Richmond all return. Junland is NHL-ready, but hadn’t staked out his own spot in St. Louis. His offense is not going to get much better, but staying in Peoria will get him more minutes, which is what he needs. Fletcher had a breakout month in March of 2008, where he was the CCM/AHL player of the month. He had 15 points in those 14 games, but he only had 32 points in 68 games for the whole season. Peoria will have to wait and see if this offense he showed was more than a one-month surge.
Brendan Bell, Bryce Lampman and Adrian Veideman all were brought in as free agents. Bell was pursued hard by St. Louis during the off-season. He played primarily with the Ottawa Senators during the 2008-09 season, and had 21 points in 53 games. However, he recorded 15 points in 15 games with Binghamton of the AHL. Bell will be one of the first call-ups to St. Louis. Lampman and Veideman will provide solid depth. Tyson Strachan also was one of the Blues final cuts.
Ben Bishop will see most of the playing time for the Rivermen this season, once he joins the team after the Blues return from Sweden. Bishop did not play as much as the Blues has hoped during last season because of the strong play of Chris Holt and the demotion of Manny Legace. This season, his main competition will come from Hannu Toivonen.
Toivonen seemed to find his play again in Finland last season. He was 19-23-9, with a .910 save percentage and a 2.68 GAA with the Ilves Tampere of the FNL. He decided to come back to North America, with the hopes of playing his way back into the Blues’ plans. If Toivonen is truly focused, he could give Bishop a run for this money. Until Bishop returns, Toivonen will be the starter and Danny Battochio will see a brief stint as the backup.
Prospects in training camp
Forwards Philip McRae, James Livingston and Tyler Shattock, defensemen Mark Cundari and Brett Ponich and goaltender Jake Allen were the junior prospects that attended Blues training camp this year. Livingston, Shattock, Cundari and Ponich were all among the first cuts made. Allen made it to the second round of cuts and McRae made it to the third round.
Next season, McRae and Allen will likely make strong pushes for roster spots. Allen will first see time in the minors, but McRae going straight to the NHL is not out of the question. McRae must improve his skating, but no one can question his offensive skill. If he continues to develop, he projects to be a solid power forward. Knowing that Allen is on the verge of turning pro, Bishop must step up is game for the Rivermen.