First round draft picks? Who needs ’em? Not the St. Louis Blues…

By Brian Weidler

After sitting out of the first round in six consecutive drafts (1990-95), the Blues have had a first round pick in four of the last six. This season, however, the Blues’ first-rounder was taken by Jersey, as part of the settlement for the previous Blues’ management having allegedly tampered with Scott Stevens in 1996. What’s more, last year’s first-rounder, Jeff Taffe, was dealt by GM Larry Pleau at the trade deadline as part of a package to bring power forward Keith Tkachuk to the Mound City. Adding to the equation are the off-season trade of 1996 first-round choice Marty Reasoner (for Doug Weight), and the consistent refusal of 1998 first-rounder Christian Backman to try his hand at the North American game.

With the Blues’ record of dealing, or simply not having, first-round picks, Ted Hampson and his staff have had to be aces at finding diamonds in the rough with mid-to-late-round picks. To their credit, they have consistently done so, and this year was no exception.

With the 57th pick overall in the second round, the Blues managed to latch onto Jay McClement. McClement, a 6-01, 193-pound left-shooting center for the OHL’s Brampton Battalion, fired 30 goals in his second season of major junior competition last year. More than his offense, however, McClement is known for his leadership qualities, his attention to defensive responsibilities and his physical, two-way style of play.

McClement was ranked 28th in North America by Central Scouting, who called him “a good skater with speed and strength,” and “a good goal scorer who capitalizes on rebounds and deflections.” Central Scouting also notes that the Kingston, Ontario native is effective and often utilized in defensive situations, an assertion that writer Bob Chery backed up in an article on McClement which appeared on “Hockey’s Future” before the draft.

Chery wrote that McClement “always lends puck support in his own zone,” and that “on occasion, he (McClement) has calmly taken the puck behind his own net to start the transition game, as if he had been playing defence for the past ten years.” McClement is also described by Chery as “a future Selke candidate in the NHL,” and as a player who, “if his offensive game continues to grow, could provide more than just defence at that level.”

In addition to his 30 goals (13 of which came on the power play), McClement chipped in 19 assists for 49 points in 66 games. He was also a plus-11, and did 61 minutes of penalty time. Five of his regular-season goals were game-winners, and he also scored the game-winner in game four of the Battalion’s first-round OHL playoff win over Guelph, the first playoff series win in Brampton’s franchise history.

With their next pick (89th overall), the Blues went to Europe to select goaltender Tuomas Nissinen. Not a great deal of information is available on this player other than his size (6-00, 176 pounds), his birthdate (July 17, 1983), his hometown (Kuopio, Finland), and his stats from last season with KalPa (40 games played, 2327 minutes, and a 3.22 goals-against average). Nissinen was ranked the fifth-best European goaltending prospect by Central Scouting, and the Blues are hoping he follows in the footsteps of other recent highly-rated Euro goalies like Evgeny Nabokov and Mika Noronen.

In the fourth round, the Blues acquired the 122nd overall pick from Atlanta in exchange for Lubos Bartecko. With this pick, the Blues chose center Igor Valeev of the OHL’s North Bay Centennials. The Russian native has been in North America playing major junior for three seasons now, the first two in the Western League before making the move to Ontario last fall.

Valeev is not Chris Pronger big, but is a solid 5-11 and 203 pounds. His stocky frame is reminiscent of a Steve Thomas or an Andrei Kovalenko, but where those players have been known for their goal-scoring abilities, Valeev seems to be more of a set-up man. He racked up a respectable 17 goals, but added 61 helpers in 62 games last year centering North Bay’s top line. The 175 minutes in penalties Valeev served last year also indicate that he is not shy about throwing his weight around, or about standing up for his teammates when the situation requires it.

The Blues went back to Europe in the fifth round, choosing center Dmitri Semin from Moscow Spartak with the 159th overall pick. Semin, who stands 5-11, weighs in at a scrawny 165 pounds, and will need to put a little more meat on his bones before crossing the pond to try his hand at the North American game. In 21 games against older players in the Russian First Division, Semin managed a respectable 6 goals and 9 points, while amassing a mere 4 minutes in penalty time.

From one extreme to another the pendulum swung for the Blues, and their next choice (190th overall) was defenseman Brett Scheffelmaier of the Medicine Hat Tigers. Scheffelmaier, a re-entering player formerly chosen by Tampa Bay 75th overall in 1999, stands 6-05, and weighs in at a bruising 205 pounds.

The 20-year-old native of Coronation, Alberta, plays a hard-hitting, physical style of defense, as evidenced by the 279 minutes of sin bin time he racked up last season, and the 877 minutes he has piled up in his WHL career. The big youngster also showed he’s not just a tough guy, chipping in 3 goals and 13 points (with an even plus-minus) from his blueline position for a last-place squad.

The Blues had no pick in the seventh round, but maintained their pattern of taking a European with every other pick by selecting 25-year-old Czech standout Petr Cajanek from HC Continental Zlin with the 253rd overall selection in the eighth round. Cajanek, a center who stands 5-11 and weighs 179 pounds, has been one of the top players in Europe for the last couple of years. He is known for a chippy, gritty style of play, and for being a point-per-game player in the Czech Extraleague. Last year, Cajanek racked up 18 goals and 49 points in 52 games for Zlin, and also amassed 105 minutes in penalty time.

Cajanek’s scoring and ability to win faceoffs, coupled with his gritty, physical style, made him attractive to the Blues. He was offered a two-way contract to come over this season, but rejected it in favor of playing one more year in his hometown of Zlin. Another strong showing in league play, and a good Olympic performance, may make it hard to keep him off the NHL roster next year. Cajanek may well be another Alexander Khavanov-type find for the Blues, an older Euro who is drafted late and crosses the pond two years later to become a regular NHL player.

The Blues’ two ninth-round selections were Grant Jacobson, a 6-02, 200-pound center from Regina (WHL), and defenseman Simon Skoog, a 6-02, 215-pounder who played last year for Morrum (Swedish Division 1). Both have the size needed to make an impact in the pro ranks, but both are long-range prospects at best.

Oh, and by the way, the Blues DID manage to finagle a couple of highly-rated former first-rounders out of their two trading partners over the last few weeks. Calgary GM Craig Button generously surrendered Dan Tkaczuk (chosen 6th overall in 1997) in the Roman Turek swap, and Pleau also pilfered Michel Riesen (chosen 14th overall in 1997) from Edmonton in the Doug Weight trade. Both youngsters, along with 2000 free agent signee Mark Rycroft, are among the prospects expected to give the Blues veteran-laden lineup a run for their money when training camp opens in Alaska in less than two months.

Let the games begin…