St. Louis Blues have intriguing mix of prospects and projects in the system

By Suraj Sukumar
Austin Poganski - St. Louis Blues

Photo: Although it is early in the season, St. Louis Blues prospect Austin Poganski risks taking a step back from his impressive freshman season at the University of North Dakota (courtesy of Michael Tureski/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

The St. Louis Blues have plenty of young talents in their pipeline and several of their prospects opened the 2015-16 campaign at the pro level. In terms of positional depth, the Blues possess a deep group of goaltenders and continue to find ways to replenish their defensive prospects. While a few positions boast high-end talent, overall depth on the wings needs to be addressed – especially after several players already made the jump to the NHL over the last few seasons.

Left Wing

In terms of offense, the Blues have very little support in their left wing prospect pool. Yannick Veilleux played his first full AHL season last year after spending some conditioning time in the ECHL. While he took on a larger offensive role as a junior player, Veilleux has become more of a two-way power forward and has been embracing that role at the professional level. Despite scoring just 13 points last season,  Veilleux was a responsible player in his own zone and has secured a bottom six role in the AHL.

Two players developing their skills at the ECHL level are Zach Pochiro – a recent callup to the Chicago Wolves who could stick – and Ryan Tesink. Pochiro was a reasonably productive scorer for the Prince George Cougars of the WHL and looks to be finding his place as a defensive forward. While he has been a good offensive player for the Quad City Mallards, it will be a lot tougher to match his production in the AHL. On the other hand, Tesink, who also plays for the Mallards, has had limited success as a pro and was plagued by injuries at the junior level. While size will always be a factor, Tesink’s high energy style and aggressive play make him a potential bottom six forward as a pro. Consistency and higher offensive output could get Tesink a better look in the near future.

At the NCAA level, Mackenzie MacEachern has been steadily improving with the Michigan State Spartans and is poised to have an offensive breakout as a junior. He is a good skater and will garner much more opportunity as as a third year player. However, to become a more complete and responsible player, MacEachern will have to improve his defensive awareness and two-way game.

Liam Dunda and Samuel Blais are the only left wingers at the junior level. While Liam Dunda is a big defensive forward, Blais is a small but quick player and has become offensively sound in the QMJHL. Dunda is a physical player who needs to work on his skating whereas Blais needs to be more physical and responsible in his own zone.

Right Wing

Leading the charge at right wing is Ty Rattie. A junior standout in the WHL, Rattie has become a comfortable scorer at the AHL level and received his expected call-up in October. He has put points on the board for the Blues but plays limited minutes thanks to a squad that remains deep even with its injury woes. While size is an issue in his checking role, his speed and offensive skills have helped him find success at every level so far.

The Blues have a couple of right wingers at the NCAA level but none of them have found immediate success. Both Austin Poganski and Dwyer Tschantz are working toward being reliable two-way forwards and have a significant size advantage – especially the 6’5 Tschantz – which helps them maintain a physical presence. Sam Kurker is back at the NCAA level but has quite a bit of improvement to do before becoming becoming a viable option at the pro level.

At the junior level, Chandler Yakimowicz is a strong power forward making his way with the London Knights of the OHL. While he is is a good physical presence, improving his skating and finding offensive consistency would help him become become a much better hockey player. Another junior player in the system lacking size is Jaedon Descheneau. He has been able to put up strong offensive numbers over the past two seasons with the Kootenay Ice of the WHL but has continuously been discounted for his small stature.

A player whose utility is fading, big Cody Beach has been trying to find his footing as an AHL player and will keep his job as long as his aggressive tendencies merit.

Center

In terms of forward prospects, the center position is by far the Blues’ strongest. Robby Fabbri made the jump to the NHL and started the season with tremendous pace, albeit playing on the wing. Injury concerns about this player were well-merited but he has returned from an early concussion and could push for the Calder Trophy with continued health.

Ivan Barbashev’s immediate success at the AHL level is good news for the Blues. He has picked up right where he left off as a junior player and could be a nice surprise in 2015-16. He is playing top-six minutes as a pro and could get a chance in the NHL if the Blues encounter any more significant injury problems.

The Blues have two right-handed players playing center at the junior level and both play in the WHL – and have birthdays one day apart. Glenn Gawdin of the Swift Current Broncos has consistently improved as an offensive player and is a fairly good-sized forward for his age and skill set. By contrast, Red Deer’s Adam Musil is a much less offensively gifted player but makes up for it in strength and physicality. He is a good skater for his size but needs to be more responsible at both ends of the ice. Both players are making strides in their careers and look ready to take the next steps once the opportunity arrives.

Defensemen

The Blues have plenty of prospects on defense and a few of them are making a splash in the pros. The big story in St. Louis is Colton Parayko and his immediate success in the NHL. He has shown a good set of offensive skills and has been a reliable player in his own zone. Despite the large stature, Parayko has proven his skating ability at the highest level. Joining Parayko at the NHL level, Joel Edmundson is another defender with good size and physical presence. While he is not as offensively gifted as Parayko, he provides good defensive ability and may have some untapped offensive upside.

At the AHL level, another top defensive prospect, Jordan Schmaltz, has quietly made a smooth transition from college. While he is not as physical or defensively sound as the other pro prospects, Schmaltz makes up for it in offensive playmaking and skating. If he can improve his defensive awareness, Schmaltz could be next in line for an NHL opportunity. Tommy Vannelli is another offensive youngster in his first year of pro hockey but has a few more hurdles to climb, not the least of which is a deep and veteran-laden depth chart.

Konrad Abeltshauser and Petteri Lindbohm are also playing for the Wolves and have been productive in the AHL so far in their careers. Lindbohm experienced a bit of a breakout campaign last season that he seems unlikely to repeat. Abeltshauser still needs to add a physical dimension that could establish him as a bottom-pairing option. With quite a few players ahead on the depth chart, it is highly likely both players will stick with full-time roles at the AHL level.

The Blues also have a group of prospects at the junior level and Vince Dunn is the clear best of the bunch. He is a highly skilled offensive player but has worked on his defensive play as well. He has proven to be a top offensive defenseman in the OHL and could be in line for a huge season. While not as prolific as Dunn, the same can be said for free-agent signing Dmitri Sergeev. He is currently in his third year with the Kitchener Rangers and could have an even more productive season than last year’s 28 points as a 19-year-old. He has good size for his age and has shown some offensive playmaking ability. It will be important for Sergeev to find consistency and improve his defensive play to become an overall better player.

The Blues have just two defensive prospects in Europe with Santeri Saari and Niko Mikkola playing in the Finnish Liiga. Saari has spent a bit of time in a few leagues over the past few seasons but looks to have found a home for now with HPK. Mikkola was the Blues’ last draft pick in the most recent NHL draft and should spend some time in Europe for conditioning and experience.

Jake Walman is the only NCAA prospect on defense, but he has already drawn some positive attention this season. After a freshman campaign in which he played a big role in helping Providence College to its first-ever national title, he is currently the top scoring defenseman in the nation. Though the Blues have the option of patience, the smooth-skating Walman could be another late-round gem for the team.

Goalies

In terms of depth, the Blues are by far the strongest in net. They have acquired a few solid prospects through trades and the draft, and may be forced to press a younger player into NHL service at some point this season. Jordan Binnington and Pheonix Copley have started the season as the Chicago Wolves’ tandem but both have struggled in the early going. Despite the slow start, both goalies have already excelled at the AHL level and should regain form soon. The goalie who improves first will likely take the reins for a period of time, especially with how well the Wolves have started the season offensively.

Outside of the AHL tandem, Ville Husso is regarded as a top goalie prospect in Europe. He is in his third season as a starter for HIFK of the Liiga and carries the league’s fourth-best save percentage. Husso has talked about his excitement to come to North America and should be a very intriguing prospect to monitor over the coming months.

A homegrown talent from Missouri, Luke Opilka was the most recent addition to the Blues’ goaltending group and is currently playing for the Kitchener Rangers in the OHL. It looks like Opilka has earned the starting job for the Rangers and, at just 18 years old, should gain plenty of experience this season.

Niklas Lundstrom had very little luck in Europe and made his way to North America last season. His poor luck has continued, as he was not very good at the ECHL level last season. Without an affiliate agreement, Minnesota Wild prospect Steve Michalek has received the bulk of the starts in Quad City and Lundstrom has yet to appear in game action this season. He was recently recalled to the Wolves so some playing time – or else a loan – may be in the cards.