What a difference 48 hours can make. In two days at the annual NHL Entry Draft in
Raleigh, North Carolina, the St. Louis Blues addressed their ongoing
goaltending issues for the present, the short-term future, and the long-range
future. They also added a number of
highly-rated prospects to their pool, and made some additional deals to impact
the future of the franchise.
GM Larry Pleau fired the first salvo of an eventful draft
weekend by trading last year’s first-round pick, defenseman Shawn Belle,
to Dallas on the Friday before the draft.
Coming back to the Mound City is goaltending prospect Jason
Bacashihua, also a former first-round pick (26th overall in 2001).
With a sizeable pool of young NHL defensemen and solid
defense prospects, the Blues were able to deal from a position of strength in
order to shore up an area of perceived weakness. Bacashihua is expected to be a contender for an NHL job with the
Blues, and will at the very least provide the AHL affiliate in Worcester with
half of a very nice one-two punch in the nets next season.
The following day, the Blues were handed an early Christmas
present when perhaps the top goalie available in this draft, Marek Schwarz
of Sparta Praha, fell into their laps with the 17th overall pick. When the Blues pick came up, Pleau and
scouting director Jarmo Kekalainen wasted little time getting to the podium and
calling on Schwarz, a Top Ten pick in nearly every draft guide.
Schwarz is a smart player with good size. He plays an effective butterfly style, is
tough to beat down low, and is mentally tough and confident as well. His quickness and reflexes are exceptional,
he likes to play the angles and challenge the shooter, and has a quick glove
On the downside, Schwarz still tends to lose focus occasionally;
that his skating is only average; and that his puck handling needs a lot of
work. He also sometimes tends to go
down a little early and leave the top of the net open to shooters.
All of those drawbacks are things that a goaltending coach
can easily correct, and Schwarz has displayed an understanding of his
shortcomings, and the willingness to work on addressing them. He has signed with HC Ocelari Trinec for
next season, and his rights were chosen 40th overall by Vancouver (WHL) in the
CHL Import Draft.
The pleasant surprises didn’t stop there for the Blues. With the 49th pick, they snagged center Carl
Söderberg. Söderberg, a 6’3,
200-pound scoring machine, dominated the Swedish junior league by scoring at
close to a goal-a-game pace, and also had a 24-game trial with the big boys in
the SEL, playing regularly and notching a goal and an assist.
Söderberg had been projected to go as high as 33rd overall
in some of the draft guides, and was considered by most to be a sure-fire early
second-round pick. Söderberg is a very
explosive player, a good skater with a powerful stride and quick feet. Söderberg is also possessed of an accurate
shot, a fine scoring touch, and good playmaking skills and hockey sense.
Earlier in Söderberg’s career, his defense was somewhat
questionable. That skill has been
worked on, however, and Söderberg is now said to be a much better player
without the puck. His size and skills
should get him some quality ice time with his hometown MIF Redhawks, and he is
considered by Hockey’s Future affiliate Eliteprospects.com to be "a
lock" for the 2005 Swedish WJC team.
In the third round, with the 83rd overall pick, the Blues
again got lucky with a highly-ranked player when Viktor Alexandrov,
Central Scouting’s eighth-ranked European in this draft, was chosen. Alexandrov, the son of a former Soviet-era
standout, is somewhat small at 5’11, 183 pounds, but displays a high skill
level. The 18-year-old managed five
goals, nine points, and 26 PIM in 56 games against veterans with Novokuznetsk
of the Russian Superleague (the top league in Russia) last season.
Like Söderberg, Alexandrov had been projected to go in the
second round, and his fall to the Blues in the third round can be taken as
evidence of the great divergence of opinion on players in this draft.
Three legitimate "steals" in three rounds, and
that was only the first day of the draft for the Blues.
Day 2 opened with another goaltending bombshell. The Blues sent a conditional fourth round
pick in next year’s draft to Ottawa for former playoff hero-turned-goat Patrick
Lalime, spelling the end of the Chris Osgood era in St. Louis. Lalime is bigger, younger and cheaper than
Osgood, and should be a more-than-adequate stopgap until Schwarz and fellow
Blues goalie prospects Konstantin Barulin and/or Tuomas Nissinen are ready.
Pleau and Kekalainen then went to work on adding more
prospects to the pool, tabbing the Czech Republic’s Michal Birner in the
fourth round, 116th overall. Birner, a
6’0”, 183-pound right wing, was one of the top scorers in the Czech junior
league last year (25-35-60 with 112 PIM in 55 games with Slavia Praha), but was
only ranked 68th among 2004 European skaters by Central Scouting.
Birner hit the weight room hard in the summer of 2003. As a result, the Litomerice native got
bigger and stronger, and developed a bit of a mean streak to go along with the
added bulk, as evidenced by the penalty minute totals in his stat line. He also
worked on his shooting skills, especially a slapshot that’s now harder than
ever before, and more accurate as well.
In addition, Birner is one of the best skaters on the Slavia junior
squad, and often used his speed and skating ability to generate offense, again
as evidenced by his statistics from last year.
Birner still needs to focus more on driving to the net, and
on playing in traffic as opposed to staying on the periphery, but he is
considered a solid prospect who is expected to play a larger role next year
with the senior Slavia squad. Adding to
Birner’s resume is the fact that he has actually been drafted twice in the last
week, as he was the eighth overall pick by Barrie (OHL) in the 2004 CHL Import
In the fifth round (136th overall), the Blues went back to
Europe for Russian defenseman Nikita Nikitin. Ranked 46th among 2004
European draft-eligibles by Central Scouting, the tall and skinny (6’3,
172-pound) blueliner managed three goals, 11 points, and 22 PIM in 34 games
with Omsk of the Russian second league last season.
The Blues then "stole" another player in the sixth
round (180th overall) with the selection of defenseman Roman Polak from
Vitkovice of the Czech junior league.
Polak is 6’1, 198 pounds, and was projected to go as high as the third
round — and no lower than the fourth — in most draft guides.
The Ostrava native is a smooth skater with impressive leg
strength and balance, and that he is a tough player to knock off his
skates. His acceleration and agility
are solid, and all of his skating assets contribute to his good positional play
and an ability to throw solid hits.
Not just an excellent skater with a good feel for the
physical game, however, Polak is also possessed of a cannon of a shot. He is also a valuable special teams player,
on both power play and penalty kill, and has good passing skills. His downside, however, is that he remains
prone to the occasional bad decision when moving the puck, and lacks good
Polak is also said to be very interested in coming to North
America to play major junior as soon as next year, and was recently chosen 19th
overall in the CHL Import Draft by Kootenay (WHL).
The Blues used their last two picks on power wingers with
size. In the seventh round (211th
overall), they chose Swedish winger David Fredriksson, a 6’2, 214-pound
left winger who was Central Scouting’s 51st-ranked European prospect. Fredriksson tallied nine goals, 12 points,
and 42 PIM in 18 games with HV 71’s J20 SuperElit team, and skated a few shifts
in the SEL as well.
Eliteprospects.com ranked Fredriksson the 20th-best Swedish
prospect available for selection this year.
Fredriksson is a potential power forward who is as strong as they
come. The big kid from Jonkoping is a
hard worker who’s not afraid to use his size, strength, and great reach along
the boards and in front of the net. His
offensive numbers haven’t been outstanding, but HV 71 has signed Fredriksson to
play in the SEL next year, and he will probably be a 12th or 13th forward on a
very deep roster.
It took until the last round of the draft, with the 277th
pick, but the Blues finally chose a North American player in the person of Jonathan
Boutin. The 6’2, 196-pound winger
tallied 31 goals and 60 points for Shawinigan of the QMJHL last year, and came
out of nowhere a bit, as he was not ranked by Central Scouting.
The final draft tally?
Eight picks, all of whom give the Blues’ fan base good reason to be
optimistic for the future. And that’s
not even the end of the story. In order
to fill the hole left in the organization’s depth chart by the Belle trade, the
Blues signed a pair of defensemen over the draft weekend, players who had been
drafted recently by other clubs and failed to come to terms with them.
Dennis Wideman (6’0, 200 pounds), a former
eighth round pick (241st overall) of Buffalo in 2002, tallied 24 goals and 65
points for London (OHL), and was the runner-up for the OHL’s top defenseman
award this past season. Patrick
Wellar (6’3, 210 pounds) was a third round pick (77th overall) by
Washington in 2002, and racked up 132 PIM to go along with 17 points in 68
games for Calgary (WHL) last year.
All in all, the Blues added 11 prospects to their list over
the weekend, at every position, and served notice that they’re ready to move
into the upper ranks of NHL developmental organizations. Just a typical 48 hours’ work for Pleau,
Kekalainen, and the rest of the Blues scouting and player development staff.
Johan Nilsson and Robert Neuhauser contributed
to this article.