The Blues have used multiple picks in the past few drafts to replenish their talent base. That young talent is beginning to reverse the fortunes in St. Louis. Several young players, most notably forwards T.J. Oshie and David Perron and recent Olympians David Backes and defenseman Eric Johnson, have already transformed the Blues from lowly to respectable.
The next wave of youngsters is close to ready. Nearly half the players in the Spring Top 20 are defensemen, including the top-ranked prospect Alex Pietrangelo. The majority of the players on the list are still 20 or younger, which bodes well. The only weakness may be a lack of an elite netminding prospect.
There are few major changes from the Fall Top 20 list, with the exception of Peoria forward Aaron Palushaj being traded to Montreal for NHLer Matt D’Agostini. A serious injury to University of Minnesota forward Jay Barriball and Plymouth’s James Livingston’s inability to secure a top line role have created some doubts as to where they project in the future.
New entries on the list include goaltender Joe Fallon, acquired from the Blackhawks for Hannu Toivonen, and Jori Lehtera, the leading scorer in Finland’s SM-Liiga.
Top 20 at a glance
1. Alex Pietrangelo, D 8.5C
2. Lars Eller, C 7.5C
3. Ian Cole, D 7.5C
4. David Rundblad, D 7.5C
5. Jake Allen, G 7.5C
6. Brett Sonne, C 7.5C
7. Philip McRae, C/W 7.0C
8. Jonas Junland, D 7.0C
9. Cade Fairchild, D 7.0C
10. Ben Bishop, G 7.0D
11. Kristoffer Berglund, D 7.0D
12. Joe Fallon, G 7.0D
13. Simon Hjalmarsson, RW 7.0D
14. Brett Ponich, D 7.0D
15. Anthony Nigro, C 6.5C
16. David Warsofsky, D 7.0D
17. Ian Schultz, RW 6.5C
18. Sergei Andronov, RW 7.0D
19. Tyler Shattock, RW 7.0D
20. Jori Lehtera, C 6.0C
1. Alex Pietrangelo, D – 20, 8.5C
6’2 200 lbs
Drafted first round, 4th overall, 2008
For the second year in a row, Pietrangelo opened the season in St. Louis. He played nine games with the Blues and scored his first NHL goal. He then joined Team Canada for the World Junior Championships before being returned to the OHL by the Blues. An OHL trade took him from his previous club, Niagara, to Memorial Cup hopeful Barrie. Pietrangelo was the top defensemen for Canada in Saskatchewan and has continued to dominate junior competition with Barrie, scoring nine goals and adding 20 assists in 25 games.
“Pietrangelo’s a stud,” said one former OHL coach. “(He’s) in that grey area between not being ready for the NHL, but too good for juniors. He will probably spend a year or two in the AHL after junior, but could develop into a top two or three guy."
2. Lars Eller, C/W – 20, 7.5C
6’1 198 lbs
Drafted first round, 13th overall, 2007
The first of three players drafted by the Blues in the first round of the 2007 draft, Eller has had little trouble adjusting to the style of play in North America in his first year with Peoria. The Danish forward has been the most consistent forward for Peoria, playing a strong, two-way game, with outstanding skating ability, stickhandling and passing skills. At the AHL All-Star game skills competition, he finished second in the fastest skater competition behind New York Rangers prospect Bobby Sanguinetti.
Eller, who played for Frolunda in the Swedish Elite League as a 19-year-old last season, made his NHL debut in November, scoring one goal during a five-game trial. With Frolunda a year ago, both he and the club struggled down the stretch after getting off to a great start. His challenge this season is to finish strongly – possibly with a late-season promotion to the Blues.
3. Ian Cole, D – 21, 7.5C
6’1 220 lbs
Drafted first round, 18th overall, 2007
The second of three 2007 first-round picks (with Eller and Perron), Cole impressed in his first two seasons with the University of Notre Dame and with steady play for Team USA at the 2009 WJC. He was good enough that there were thoughts of him signing with the Blues instead of returning to college.
Cole returned for his junior year but for both him and Notre Dame the season didn’t go as planned. Cole suffered a concussion after being hit from behind in a December game and suffered another in a January game. Notre Dame, recent contender, finished under .500 and was swept by Ohio State in the CCHA playoffs.
Despite the injuries, Cole played 30 games (3 goals, 19 assists), was effective on the power play, and remained steady on defense. Cole remains among the echelon of top defensemen prospects, albeit with concerns about his long-term health.
4. David Rundblad, D – 19, 7.5C
6’2 198 lbs
Drafted first round, 17th overall, 2009
One of seven Swedish first-round picks last spring, Rundblad, unlike Pietrangelo and Cole, is an offensive defenseman. Tall, but not as thick or strong as countryman Victor Hedman, picked second overall, Rundblad’s forte is his skills and skating ability, with which he creates chances and distributes the puck.
Rundblad plays for Skelleftea in the Swedish Elite League and also represented Sweden at the past two WJC’s. Though not yet the goal scorer that he was in juniors – he scored his first professional goal and has 12 assists in 47 games while playing 15 minutes per game as a 19-year-old.
Compared by some to Washington’s Mike Green, Rundblad is a high-risk, high-reward player. Turnover concern aside, his offensve touch could compliment the powerful, physical style of the other Blues youngsters.
Rundblad will likely spend one more year in Sweden and then time in the AHL to get acclimated to North American hockey.
5. Jake Allen, G – 19, 7.5C
6’1 192 lbs
Drafted second round, 34th overall, 2008
Allen played five games at this year’s WJC tournament and started the decisive gold medal game. That game did not go well, he was pulled in the third period with the United States leading 5-3 (Canada lost 6-5 in overtime), but that one night shouldn’t overshadow what he’s done thus far.
Allen has excelled in the QMJHL, particularly after being traded to Drummondville. Allen was named Defensive Player of the Month for February after posting an 11-1 mark with a 1.59 GAA. While some of that is due to the stronger lineup in Drummondville, Allen also played well for Montreal prior to the WJC’s, with an 11-10-1 mark, .912 save percentage and a 2.66 GAA.
6. Brett Sonne, C/LW – 20, 7.5C
6’0 190 lbs
Drafted third round, 85th overall, 2007
Sonne finished his junior career with a flourish, but is on the traditional learning curve of a first-year player in the AHL. He has started to show signs of the scorer the Blues believe they drafted, with 20 points in 64 games.
Sonne had one of the worst plus/minus ratings for Peoria at the start the year. His improvement has coincided with Peoria’s. Sonne recently scored four goals over nine games with a +3 before missing time with an upper-body injury.
With AHL veterans Danny Richmond and Yan Stastny along with Toivonen and Palushaj, a former linemate, dealt at the NHL training deadline, he is playing in all situations.
7. Philip McRae, LW – 19, 7.0C
6’2 190 lbs
Drafted second round, 33rd overall, 2008
One of two prospects who played youth hockey in the St. Louis area, McRae is a work in progress. Now in his fourth OHL season, he has finally approaching the potential he showed as a 16-year-old rookie.
“Big body, good skill, good speed — could be a late bloomer and turn into the total package,” said a former OHL coach. “(He’s) very high reward if he turns out, but he has a long way to go.”
McRae started the season with London, playing at a point-per-game pace with 11 goals and 26 assists in 33 games prior to winning a gold medal with the USA squad at the WJCs. A trade after the tournament sent him to the playoff-bound Plymouth Whalers. McRae has scored five goals and has nine assists in 19 games with Plymouth.
8. Jonas Junland, D – 22, 7.0C
6’2 198 lbs
Drafted third round, 64th overall, 2006
Like Eller, Junland was selected to play in the AHL All-Star game. Currently the Rivermen’s second-leading scorer, Junland has established himself as a two-way defenseman. He is especially effective on the power play – where he has scored nine of his 12 goals this season. His size and strength allow him to compete in his own zone, too.
Junland arrived in North America last season after playing two seasons for Linkoping in the Swedish Elite League. He had a solid rookie season, earning a call-up to the Blues and making his NHL debut. While there were some questions about his defensive play and willingness to compete physically, he has improved in both areas this season.
With high-profile players like Pietrangelo, Cole and Rundblad on the way, Junland may have a harder time finding a spot. But if he’s good enough he’ll find a spot somewhere.
9. Cade Fairchild, D – 21, 7.0C
5’10 190 lbs
Drafted fourth round, 96th overall, 2007
Fairchild, like former USNTDP teammate Cole, was expecting big things this year. But like Notre Dame, Fairchild’s University of Minnesota team disappointed, finishing seventh in the WCHA. Fairchild’s statistics followed the team’s.
Fairchild is an offensive force from the backline with skating speed, passing and stickhandling skills and a lethal shot. But after scoring nine goals and 33 points in 35 games a year ago, he didn’t score his first goal until January 9th. He finished with four goals and 17 assists in 39 games.
Typical of small, speedy defensemen, Fairchild must provide constant offense to justify being overmatched physically at times.
10. Ben Bishop, G – 23, 7.0D
6’7 216 lbs
Drafted third round, 85th overall, 2005
In his second full season with Peoria, Bishop has gotten the most starts, but has the worst save percentage at .899, along with a 2.85 GAA and 18-16-3 record. Bishop had a good December, when he went 7-2 with a 2.09 GAA.
Bishop uses his 6’7 frame to his advantage. Despite giving up the occasional bad goal, he has a knack for making timely saves. Depending on how the Blues address their goaltending situation, he could compete for the backup spot with the Blues in training camp.
11. Kristoffer Berglund, D – 21, 7.0D
5’10 183 lbs
Drafted fifth round, 125th overall, 2008
With the NHL trending towards smooth-skating, playmaking defensemen who excel in the transition game, it’s a bit surprising that Berglund was still available in the fifth round of the 2008 draft. Berglund, no relation to current Blues forward Patrik, has long been one of the top young defensemen in the Swedish youth program and is in his fourth professional season there.
A bit undersized and at times over-matched physically, Berglund is adept at reading situations and uses skills and instinct to escape heavy pressure or create opportunities for teammates.
Berglund is in his second season with Lulea in the SEL after spending two seasons with his hometown club Bjorkloven, a Second Division club. He has six goals and 16 assists in 55 games.
With so many young defensemen, the numbers are stacked against Berglund; but his offensive skills and instinctive understanding of the game merit a look.
12. Joe Fallon, G – 25, 7.0D
6’3 190 lbs
Drafted sixth round, 167th overall, 2005 (Chicago) – Acquired in trade 3/10
The Bemidji, MN native began the season with Chicago’s AHL affiliate in Rockford, rotating with former Chicago second-round pick Corey Crawford. With Crawford injured in November, Fallon played well in the starter’s role. In 29 games, he posted a 15-10-1 record, 2.64 GAA and .912 save percentage.
Like Bishop, Fallon’s a big goalie and relies on playing angles and taking away space.
The odd-man out in Chicago, Fallon has been given a chance to shine with Peoria, starting the majority of the games since he came over in the trade. He’s posted a .905 save percentage, better than Bishop’s.
He was a top goalie for the University of Vermont, twice allowing fewer than two goals per game for the season.
13. Simon Hjalmarsson, RW – 21, 7.0D
5’11 165 lbs
Drafted second round, 39th overall, 2007
After selecting Eller, Cole and Perron, the Blues took a calculated risk with Hjalmarsson with their first of two second-round picks. Hjalmarsson, no relation to Blackhawks defenseman Niklas, is undersized and light but was a scoring machine and an intense leader in Swedish juniors.
Hjalmarsson’s first full year of pro hockey went well last year with Boras in the second division, but the step up to the Swedish Elite league has proven challenging. He scored 11 goals and nine assists in 53 games playing just over 12 minutes a night for last-place Rogle.
Hjalmarsson must work hard this summer to develop the physical strength and instincts necessary to compete against bigger, faster professionals.
14. Brett Ponich, D – 19, 7.0D
6’6 205 lbs
Drafted second round, 48th overall, 2009
Rated 151st among North American skaters by Central Scouting, Ponich’s selection in the second round raised some eyebrows. But the once-awkward Portland Winterhawk defenseman has come into his own this year and is just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential. Portland is one of the big stories in the WHL and while much of their success is due to some talented 17-year-olds, Ponich’s contribution cannot be overlooked.
Nicknamed “Tree” by his teammates, he had a -39 two seasons ago when Portland was one of the league doormats. Now a team captain, he is a steady defensive defenseman – while showing a willingness to play a tough, physical game when the situation calls for it. He must improve his skating and stickhandling skills for the next level.
15. Anthony Nigro, C – 20, 6.5C
6’0, 190 lbs
Drafted sixth round, 155th overall, 2008
Nigro has scored about a point a game this season with the Ottawa 67’s, which is about the same as last season overall. What has gotten attention is his ability to contribute in a variety of roles and situations.
He has an ability to score goals, despite otherwise average skills and limited skating ability. But this season he has just 16, while being a more complete player – killing penalties, generating offense, and playing both ends. An effective playmaker – as illustrated by 46 assists – he still plays the power style of hockey that first drew attention in his early junior days with Guelph.
16. David Warsofsky, D – 19, 7.0D
5’9, 170 lbs
Drafted fourth round, 95th overall, 2008
The smallest of the Blues’ defensemen prospects, the Boston University sophomore has had a memorable winter. After Team USA’s championship in Saskatchewan, he scored a goal in Fenway Park against Boston College in the Beanpot Tournament final.
The Terriers, after stumbling out of the gates, are now one of the better teams in the country – posting 12 of their 16 wins since the holidays. With five goals in the Terriers’ last nine games before the Hockey East tournament – Warsofsky’s played a big part. He has 23 points in 33 games on the year.
While size will always be an issue, he’s a high character player and his slap shot from the point is a weapon – especially on the power play. His 12 goals are a lot more than the three he had last year.
His offensive game will attract attention after his college career but his skill set – like Fairchild’s – may be better suited to pro hockey overseas.
17. Ian Schultz, RW – 20, 6.5C
6’2”, 185 lbs
Drafted third round, 87th overall, 2008
Another 20-year-old playing in Canadian juniors, Schultz is a high character, punishing forward with some offensive ability. While not as skilled as Backes, his approach to the game is similar and his leadership has been a key factor in the success of the Calgary Hitmen.
Though more known for his physical play – his skating and stick-handling ability are still suspect though he has worked hard to improve both – Schultz is on pace to break the 20-goal barrier for the first time, playing with talented youngsters Misha Fisenko and Brandon Kozun.
While not as flashy or skilled as some of the other forwards in the Blues system, he has the determination and willingness required of two-way power forwards. In the best case, he can become a Troy Brouwer-like forward. But it will likely take a few years of minor league hockey to accomplish that.
18. Sergei Andronov, RW – 20, 7.0D
6’2”, 183 lbs
Drafted third round, 78th overall, 2009
A left-handed shot that plays the off-wing, Andronov is a late bloomer who attracted attention with Team Russia at the 2008 World Junior Championships.
The fourth of only seven Russians drafted last June, Andronov was recently traded from Lada Togliatti to traditional Russian power CSKA Moscow.
A solid two-way forward and intense forechecker, Andronov is a skilled stickhandler and passer, but is not yet a consistent goal scorer. Andronov made his pro debut in the Russian Super League playoffs as a 17-year-old in 2006-07 but was a lower line forward for two years with Lada. This season, Andronov scored five goals with nine assists in 33 games before the trade. In 19 games with CSKA, he has five goals and three assists.
He is one of the more talented players in the Blues system, but the uncertainty of Russian players leaving the KHL is a factor.
19. Tyler Shattock, RW – 20, 7.0D
6’3”, 192 lbs
Drafted fourth round, 108th overall, 2009
Shattock, overlooked in his first year of draft eligibility has the instincts and tenacity of a pure goal scorer. He plays a simple game – relying on power and drive.
Kamloops’ leading scorer, Shattock was surprised to be included in a five-player, trade deadline deal that took him to the Memorial Cup-contending Calgary Hitmen. Though happy in Kamloops, Shattock is now part of a balanced attack with the Hitmen. While his scoring numbers are lower (he had 22 goals in 42 games for Kamloops, compared to just eight in 30 games since the trade), he appears to be developing a better understanding of winning hockey. While still playing physical hockey, he has been staying out of the penalty box. Calgary could go far in the playoffs, giving Shattock the chance to play a lot more hockey this season.
A native of Salmon Arm, BC, Shattock attended the San Jose Sharks camp in 2008.
20. Jori Lehtera, C – 22, 6.0C
6’2”, 192 lbs
Drafted third round, 65th overall, 2008
The Tappara forward has great offensive instincts and passing ability. The leading SM-Liiga scorer in just his second season with 68 points in 55 games, he made his debut for Team Finland in Moscow at the three-game Channel One Cup (one assist).
His offensive ability is unquestioned but scouts have scrutinized his his skating ability, the level of competition he faces, and his defensive play, as well as if his creative, instinctive style can be successful in North America.
He got a taste of North American hockey last spring playing with Peoria at the end of the year. After tallying one assist in the last seven regular season games, he played in the seven-game, first-round series against Houston. Lehtera scored his first AHL goal in Game 1 and added an assist and was -2 for the series.