Skill and toughness dominate St. Louis Blues prospect awards

By Brad Gardner

Photo: After splitting the past two seasons between the AHL and NHL, defenseman Ian Cole appears ready for full-time NHL duties. (Robin Alam/Icon SMI)

 

After a second place finish in the Western Conference during the 2011-12 season, the hope and promise surrounding the Blues organization is more immediate than ever. That said there were still plenty of notable performances from the prospect ranks within the St. Louis pipeline and even more promise on the horizon. In the inaugural edition of the St. Louis Blues prospect awards, Hockey's Future takes a look at some of these performances. The winner for each category was determined by the writer with assistance from the HF staff.

Prospect of the Year: Ty Rattie, LW, Portland Winterhawks (WHL)

Few prospects put up the numbers that Ty Rattie accumulated in his third season with Portland of the WHL. The 19-year-old winger finished second in the league with 57 goals during the regular season and led the league with 19 goals in 21 games during the playoffs, managing 76 goals in 90 total games on the season. Although he was outscored on a per-game basis by Sven Baertschi (CGY), Rattie led Portland in almost every other stat category and was a major reason the club earned a second consecutive trip to the WHL Championship series. His 26 power play goals, for example, led the league and accounted for a quarter of the goals scored by the Winterhawks' top-ranked unit. Rattie likely has another year of seasoning and physical development in the WHL to prove he can put up the points even without his regular partner in crime, Baertschi.

Most Improved Prospect: Cade Fairchild, D, Peoria Rivermen (AHL)

No other prospect did as much to improve their stock this season as defenseman Cade Fairchild. The 23-year-old blueliner made his pro debut with Peoria and was one of the team's top scorers from the back end. He finished second only to veteran defenseman Danny Syvret in scoring with eight goals and 34 points in 68 AHL games. The Rivermen struggled as a team for stretches throughout the season, but Fairchild still maintained the team's top plus/minus rating and the second-best mark among all AHL defenseman with a plus-26 rating. Although the longer pro schedule caught up with him to some extent later in the year, Fairchild still enjoyed a breakout season in his first professional campaign. He is likely penciled in to start next season in Peoria but, after five games with the big club this season, another appearance in St. Louis may not be far off.

Best Defensive Prospect: Ian Cole, D, St. Louis Blues (NHL)

Between Fairchild, Finnish bruiser Jani Hankanpaa, and Ian Cole, the Blues defensive pipeline is far from dried up. Cole again split time between Peoria and St. Louis and made another solid impression with the big club. Though he may not produce a ton of points over the course of his career, Cole generally makes sound decisions with the puck and is far from a liability in the offensive end. His strong suit is the defensive side and that is where Cole's size and shutdown ability make the biggest impact. At 6'1 and 225 pounds, the 23-year-old blueliner has the strength to compete and the temperament to protect his net at all costs. He has just the defensive acumen and capable puck play that the Blues look for in their second or third pairing defensemen.

Overachiever: Cody Beach, LW, Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL)

Cody Beach enjoyed another strong junior season with Moose Jaw, leading the team with 41 assists and 229 penalty minutes during 58 regular season games. His ability as a set-up man made him a valuable asset on the team's scoring lines, where his size and physical play also opened up space for his linemates. Although he has been able to maintain a top six role throughout the year in the WHL, Beach's projection at the pro level is not quite as lofty. His ability to play with an edge, use his size in the physical game, and propensity for getting under the skin of his opponents certainly gives him a very particular set of skills at the next level, but it is likely more as an energy line player than an offensive contributor.

Underachiever: Dmitri Jaskin, LW, Slavia Praha (Czech Extraliga)

The 6'2 winger Dmitri Jaskin, a third round pick in the 2011 draft, had one of the more disappointing seasons among the Blues prospect pool. His production decreased in his second season with Slavia Praha in the Czech Republic's top pro league and he managed just one goal and two points in 30 games. There were also expectations for the power forward to contribute on the score sheet for his country's World Junior Championships squad, but he again only managed one goal and two points through six contests at the tournament. In both cases, the more experienced Jaskin was outperformed by 2012 draft eligible forward Tomas Hertl, who has a similar frame and goal-scoring prowess to the elder Jaskin. His 2011-12 output has done little to quiet questions regarding his consistency at this point, but he will have another shot with Slavia Praha next season to take a step forward in his development.

Hardest Shot: Vladimir Tarasenko, RW, SKA St. Petersburg (KHL)

The hard and heavy shot is often a skill harnessed by defensemen who have the time and space to rip booming slap shots towards the net, so Vladimir Tarasenko's inclusion here may be somewhat peculiar. However, the Russian winger's quick release, accuracy, and powerful shot combine to produce as formidable a sniping arsenal as can be found in the system. That skill-set helped him rank fifth in the KHL with 23 goals during the regular season and third in the postseason with 10 goals despite playing in just 15 games. While Rattie's numbers are certainly impressive, that Tarasenko was able to have that sort of goal-scoring success in one of the world's top pro leagues is an indication that he may be the Blues' top sniper in the system.

Fastest Skater: Vladimir Tarasenko, RW, SKA St. Petersburg (KHL)

There are again several candidates for the Blues' fastest skater award. Jaden Schwartz may not possess elite speed, but he is shifty and elusive enough for it to not be considered too much of a weakness. Rattie's improved skating and ability to find open ice were on full display in his breakout season with Portland as well. Tarasenko's explosiveness and straight line speed gives him an edge over both talented forwards, however, and is another reason why he is widely considered among the top hockey prospects in the world. He is dangerous on the rush and capable of making plays at top speed as well, which makes him dangerous every time he touches the puck.

Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Evgeny Grachev, C, Peoria Rivermen (AHL)

A once highly regarded power forward prospect, Grachev finally saw an extended look at the NHL level in 2011-12 but averaged just over nine minutes a game, mostly playing in a checking forward role. Possessing a 6'4 224 pound frame and a soft set of hands, Grachev has the prerequisites to be a high-traffic offensive threat but instead prefers to avoid the rough stuff and play a mostly ineffective perimeter game. Though signed through next season, Grachev will have to be mighty impressive to earn a regular spot in the NHL. Especially since the Blues recently signing top prospects Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, both of whom are expected to start next year in the NHL.

Hardest Worker: Stefan Della Rovere, LW, Peoria Rivermen (AHL)

The Blues have several prospects who can count work ethic and a warrior mentality among their strengths. Stefan Della Rovere may be the best-suited prospect to the type of energizing and physical style of hockey that is expected out of a checking line player. The 22-year-old winger finished his second pro season in 2011-12, skating exclusively in Peoria with four goals and 10 points in 69 games. He also managed 116 penalty minutes, some of which were earned in his six fights. The 5'11 and 205-pound winger is not afraid of mixing it up with bigger players, sticking his nose in the corners, or taking his shots around the net. The Blues have found success with players with a similar build, such as the 5'10 Vladimiar Sobotka, in checking roles, so Della Rovere may not be far from another chance in the bottom six with St. Louis.

Breakout Player for 2012-13: Ryan Tesink, LW, Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)

Ryan Tesink has already begun to stick out among the loads of talent on the Saint John Sea Dogs roster. He was an integral piece early on at the Memorial Cup with goals in each of the team's three preliminary round games despite spending much of his ice time on the third line. That role could very well increase in the 2012-13 with the Sea Dogs expected to lose a significant number of top players to the pro ranks, such as Jonathan Huberdeau (FLA), Charlie Coyle (MIN), and Stanislav Galiev (WAS). Tesink has occasionally skated with the team's top six in his two seasons with the club, but next season may see him skate full-time on a scoring line along with a more consistent role on the special teams units. Even though he could be headed towards a breakout season from a production standpoint next year and the increase in ice time can only help his development, Tesink still projects as more of a hard-working, versatile forward at the pro level rather than a primary offensive option.