After falling short of last year’s postseason, the Peoria Rivermen are looking to youngsters, a rookie head coach and an AHL All-Star to get them back to the playoffs, for a shot at the Calder Cup.
The forward group is headed by T.J. Hensick, a former Avalanche prospect who was acquired this summer for Julian Talbot. The AHL All-Star had grown disgruntled in Colorado as his playing time decreased with the arrival of Matt Duchene and some other talented prospects. A change of scenery might be just what it takes to help Hensick take his next step forward. The Rivermen coaching staff hopes he can duplicate last year’s 70 points in only 58 games.
In addition to Hensick, the Rivermen welcome a talented group of rookies to this year’s club. Anthony Nigro, Philip McRae, Tyler Shattock and Stefan Della Rovere all make their debuts this year. McRae, the son of former NHLer Basil McRae, is not a swift skater, but he competes hard in the corners and in front of the net. Nigro is a strong two-way center who could be valuable on the penalty kill if he adjusts quickly to the speed of the AHL game. Shattock can contribute garbage goals and versatility by playing all three forward positions. Della Rovere plays a pesky and tough brand of hockey, and should help the Rivermen by getting under the opponent’s skin.
Rounding out the forwards is a group of AHL veterans that should make Peoria a tough team to play against. Graham Mink, acquired in a trade with Florida, brings nine years of AHL experience and two Calder Cups. Talented second year forward Brett Sonne hopes to build on last year’s 24 point performance while improving a horrible minus-15. Finally, Nicholas Drazenovic should be able to provide playmaking ability from the pivot position on the powerplay.
As this article is being written, the blue line is in a state of flux for the Rivermen. Injuries to Nikita Nikitin and Carlo Colaiacovo have opened up the race for the sixth and seventh defenders on the Blues’ roster. Considering defenseman Tyson Strachan could get claimed if placed on waivers, the race comes down to Ian Cole or Alex Pietrangelo.
That means Cole or Pietrangelo will be playing alongside a talented group of rearguards in Peoria. Both are top prospects who can skate, they both like to play physical and the can move the puck up the ice. Fellow rookie Mark Cundari won’t bring much size, but he will bring physicality and a strong two-way game.
Joining the rookies are gritty veteran Dean Arsene, Brennan Evans, Daryl Boyle, and Nathan Oystrick. Arsene was brought in as a free agent for his veteran leadership and his own brand of toughness. Also a winner of two Calder Cups, Arsene is a front-runner to wear the "C" for the Rivermen this year. Evans and Oystrick will bring toughness and depth to a strong Rivermen blueline.
Goaltending is a strength for the Rivermen. Ben Bishop and Jake Allen will share time in the crease, with the nod going to the hot hand. Both are very promising prospects, but both should remain with the Rivermen unless there is an injury to Ty Conklin or Jaroslav Halak.
With Halak and Conklin entrenched on the NHL roster, Bishop will have another year to grow into an NHL goaltender. He was one of the most impressive prospects at this year’s Blues camp and showed that he can play in the NHL. His incredible size (6’7 over 200 pounds) makes him a very intriguing prospect.
As for Jake Allen, this is his first year of professional hockey. His body of work includes a CHL goaltender of the year award and a Silver medal from last year’s U20 Worlds. Only 20 years old, the future is bright for Allen. He will be splitting time with Bishop, but he should still get plenty of opportunities to show what he can do at this level.
Head Coach, Jared Bednar, who has been a mainstay in the ECHL, gets his first head coaching job at the AHL level after only one year as an assistant in Abbotsford. His challenge will be integrating youngsters alongside AHL veterans for a team that has a lot of talent.
Bednar will have plenty of help from highly regarded coaches Drake Berehowsky and Dan Brooks. Both have a long history working with young players which should help immensely.
Top prospects Ian Cole and Alex Pietrangelo are definitely making an impression in camp, making the decision on whom to send down tough for the Blues’ coaching staff. The decision will come down to which of the two prospects can take a regular shift as the Blues’ sixth defenseman. The coaching staff doesn’t want to hinder either player’s development by forcing them to spent time as a healthy scratch.
Ben Bishop also impressed at camp. He was a late cut by the Blues’ staff who is ready to take on the backup role in St. Louis if there is an injury to Conklin or Halak.
Article was written by Tim Freitag