Worcester IceCats season preview

By Brian Weidler





From: "Elite Prospects" <webmaster@eliteprospects

The 2004-05 edition of the Worcester Ice Cats will look to
improve on the 37-21-13-3 record they posted last year, and they’ll be doing it
with no less than 13 new faces among the 27-man roster announced on October
11. Fifth-year coach Don Granato will
be counting heavily on some of those new faces to provide an offensive spark,
and also to provide the muscle to keep the opposition from taking liberties
with some of the smaller skill players that will pepper this year’s roster.

 

Goaltenders

 

Goaltending
has become a position of strength in the St. Louis organization, and this is
reflected by the presence in Worcester of two legitimate AHL No. 1
goalies. The 2004-05 Cats will be
backstopped by prospect Jason Bacashihua (acquired from Dallas for Shawn
Belle just prior to the 2004 Entry Draft) and AHL veteran Curtis Sanford. Rookie Chris Beckford-Tseu impressive
in camp and at the Traverse City prospect tournament, but he has been assigned
to affiliate Peoria of the ECHL to start the year.

 

Bacashihua,
a former first round pick of the Stars, has been stellar in the Cats’
preseason. The Garden City, MI native
allowed three goals on 42 shots in 101 minutes for a 1.78 GAA, a 92.9 save
percentage, and a 1-0-1 record.
Sanford, meanwhile, allowed five goals on 39 shots in 110 minutes for a
2.73 GAA and an 87.2 save percentage in the preseason. He did earn a 2-0 shutout of Albany in a
game shortened by poor ice conditions, but his stats were affected by being
torched for four first period goals on 15 shots vs. Lowell on October 3.

 

As
Worcester’s starter last season, the 25-year-old Sanford posted the best
numbers of his brief pro career with a 2.13 GAA, 92.1 save percentage, and
20-16-3 record in 43 starts.
Bacashihua, 22, didn’t fare quite as well behind a shaky defense at Utah
last year, but still managed a respectable 2.66 GAA, 91.6 save percentage, and
a 13-19-5 record in 39 starts.

 

Neither
"Lamont" (Sanford) or "Cash" (Bacashihua) are big
goaltenders; Bacashihua stands 5’11 and weighs in at 175 pounds, while Sanford
is 5’10 and tips the scales at 188 pounds.

 

Both are
goalies who are at their best when playing a lot, so there will definitely be a
competition for playing time as both seek to establish themselves as the No. 1
guy in Worcester, and third on the Blues’ depth chart. Sanford has a leg up on Bacashihua in that
he has had a taste of the NHL with the Blues, and was considered an even-money
bet to push veteran Reinhard Divis for the NHL backup role this year. Bacashihua is younger, is probably the better
athlete of the two, and is hungry to sample the NHL lifestyle for himself. The competition for playing time between
these two excellent goaltenders will be just one of the interesting sidelines
for Worcester fans to keep an eye on this year.

 

Defense

 

The
Worcester blueline this season will be a contrast of styles, ranging from
offensive dynamos and power play quarterbacks to stay-at-home bruisers and
heavy hitters.

 

Shepherding
the IceCats’ blueline flock will be veteran Aris Brimanis. The sometime NHL’er and long-time AHL
stalwart split time last season between the Blues (no points, 4 PIM in 13
games) and Worcester (19 points and 56 PIM in 65 games), and will be a
steadying influence on a defense corps that will be dominated by youth.

 

Two of the
prime examples of that youth, on opposite ends of the spectrum, are free agent
signee Dennis Wideman and draft pick Trevor Byrne. Wideman, a former Buffalo draftee who signed
with the Blues after the 2004 Entry Draft, is an offensive catalyst (65 points
with 85 PIM and a whopping +56 in 60 games with London of the OHL in 2003-04)
who seems born to run a power play. His
powerful, accurate right-handed shot and offensive skills (5 points with a +3
in four preseason games) draw the inevitable comparisons to Hall of Famer Al
Macinnis, and Wideman will be given a very long look in the role of power play
quarterback.

 

Byrne, the
Blues’ fourth pick (143rd overall) in 1999, is looking to follow up a solid
rookie season in which he showed more offensive upside than was expected. Byrne managed seven goals and 20 points in
63 games with the Cats last year, and that upside, plus his 6’2, 208-pound
size, puts him high on the call list should the Blues experience injury issues
on defense if and when the NHL season finally gets under way.

 

Another
player that is high on the list of potential call-ups is second year pro Aaron
Mackenzie
. The Terrace Bay, ON
native isn’t the biggest guy out there at 6-0, 187 pounds, but he is a willing,
and fearsome, open-ice hitter who loves the physical game. In 66 games with the Cats last year, the
former Denver University blueliner also demonstrated some offensive upside,
notching five goals and 14 points to go along with 108 minutes in the sin bin.

 

Two other
prospects who figure into the Blues’ long-term plans are Mike Stuart and
the enormous Brett Scheffelmaier (6’5, 220 pounds). Stuart, a 24-year-old native of Rochester,
MN, got a two-game cup of coffee last year with the Blues (0 points with no
PIM), and managed only four assists and 20 PIM in 30 games with Worcester. He is a steady, no-nonsense, stay-at-home
blueliner. Scheffelmaier, 23, split
time with Peoria (3 points and 21 PIM in 10 games) and Worcester (1 point with
56 PIM in 23 games) in 2003-04, and looks to stay with the Cats full-time this
season. "Scheff" is gaining a
reputation as a tough guy, as you might gather from his size, and few are
willing to challenge a guy who — in terms of size and appearance, anyway —
may be a Chris Pronger clone.

 

Mike Mottau, a former
top prospect in the NY Rangers system, signed with the Blues as a free agent
this past summer, and will add an offensive dimension to the blueline, as well
as a veteran presence. The 26-year-old
struck for nine goals and 31 points in 69 games with Cincinnati in
2003-04. Another veteran, this one
signed to an AHL contract by Worcester, is 27-year-old Brendan Buckley. The Massachusetts native split time last
year with Syracuse and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and managed a pair of goals, 10
points, and 101 PIM. Buckley and
Mottau, like Brimanis, will be the greybeards on defense, and will be working
with the younger prospect defensemen to help them achieve their full potential
in the organization.

 

By the
numbers:
The average
Worcester defenseman is 25.5 years old (Brimanis, at 32.6 years as of 10-01-04,
skews this number), stands 6’1.5 tall and weighs 200.4 pounds. The five defensemen eligible for prospect
status as defined by Hockey’s Future standards (Byrne, Mackenzie,
Scheffelmaier, Stuart and Wideman) average 23.4 years old, just under 6’2
(6’1.8) in height and 198.8 pounds.

 

Forwards

 

Even more
so than the defense, the 2004-05 edition of the IceCats’ forward group is
defined by youth. None of the 17
forwards on the 27-man roster is older than 26, and there are four
"true" rookies making their pro debuts this fall in Worcester.

 

The
youngest of the rookies, 19-year-old Konstantin Zakharov, is a
high-risk, high-reward kind of player.
He was a top player in the men’s league in his native Belarus at age 17,
and came over last year at age 18 to play for Moncton of the QMJHL, where he
scored 33 goals in 55 games. He’s
definitely a rising star in the Blues organization, and many eyes will be on
him to gauge how he responds to taking another step up, at a tender age, in the
level of competition he’ll face.

 

Also making
their pro debuts are two players at opposite ends of the spectrum in almost
every aspect. Alexei Shkotov is
a small skilled European forward, while D.J. King is a hulking bruiser
from western Canada with enough offensive upside to justify a third line role.

 

Shkotov
also made his North American debut last year with Moncton, but had an early
falling-out with his coaches and was sent packing to Quebec, where he quickly
became one of the Remparts’ brightest lights.
In 43 games total with Moncton (7) and Quebec (36), Shkotov touched
QMJHL netminders for 27 goals, and added 40 helpers for a total of 67 points,
an average of over one-and-a-half points per game. The 5’10, 175-pounder is as fast as lightning, and can bring the
fans out of their seats with his moves and stickhandling.

 

King split
time between Lethbridge and Kelowna of the Western League in 2003-04,
eventually piling up 13 goals, 30 points, and 182 penalty minutes. He was effective in the playoffs as well,
with 1-6-7 totals, 16 PIM, and a +10 in 17 games for Kelowna, who made it as
far as the Final Four in the WHL, and hosted the Memorial Cup. King has gotten a reputation as a fighter
you don’t want to mess with, and at 6’3, 221 pounds, it’s easy to see why. He is in the Blues’ future plans as a
third-line Darren McCarty type, maybe with a little less offense, but plenty of
the same toughness and grit.

 

The fourth
"true" rookie making his pro debut this year is free agent Ryan
Ramsay
. Ramsay, a 5’11, 205-pound
left wing from Ajax, Ontario, was impressive at the Traverse City prospect
tournament. In fact, his 1-4-5 scoring
totals and +3 tied him for the team lead in both categories for the tournament
champions. Ramsay’s no stranger to the
scoresheet, as evidenced by his 77 points last year with Plymouth (OHL), and
his 132 penalty minutes with the Whalers are testament to his grit.

 

Erkki
Rajamaki, a Finnish import acquired from Tampa Bay by the Blues in 2004 in
exchange for an eighth round pick in the 2004 draft, also makes his North
American pro debut this season. At 6’2,
205 pounds, Rajamaki has the size to play a physical game, and he has the
reputation of being just that kind of a player. Rajamaki is a couple of weeks shy of his 26th birthday.

 

Three other
new faces in Worcester this year are Jeff Hoggan and Mark Jerant,
each with some AHL experience, and tough guy Robin Gomez, who spent his
rookie pro season in the ECHL last year.

 

Hoggan, 26,
has spent the last couple of season in the Minnesota system after a collegiate
career with Nebraska-Omaha. He’s one of
only four players in this year’s IceCat roster to have scored 20 goals in the
AHL last year, potting 21 and adding 15 helpers in 77 games with Houston. Hoggan signed with the Blues as a free agent
over the summer, and will be asked to be a supplemental scorer and a veteran
presence on a young IceCat squad.

 

Jerant, at
6’4, 235 pounds, is one of the biggest players on the 2004-05 IceCats. Signed to an AHL contract by Worcester, Jerant
had a good training camp, and developed a reputation for physical play as a
rookie pro last year. He split time
between Hershey of the AHL and the Elmira Jackals of the UHL, where he scored a
total of one goal (with Elmira) and four assists, but he’s not in Worcester
because of his scoring prowess.

 

Gomez also
manage respectable 26 points in South Carolina of the ECHL last year. The 6’2, 210-pound 23-year-old racked up 214
PIM last year with the Stingrays, and his willingness to stand up for teammates
has given him this chance to move up to a higher competitive level.

 

The last
new face on the 2004-05 Cats belongs to Jon DiSalvatore. A New Englander born and raised, DiSalvatore
spent four productive years at Providence College before turning pro in the San
Jose organization last year. Despite
scoring 22 goals and 46 points with Cleveland, DiSalvatore was not offered a
new contract by the Sharks, and signed with the Blues as free agent during the
summer. DiSalvatore was one of several
members of this IceCat squad to have been considered good bets to make the
Blues NHL roster before the lockout.

 

The rest of
this year’s IceCat roster is comprised of returning players from last year’s
90-point team, most of whom are under contract to the Blues. The one player that is not a Blues’ chattel
is small forward Brendan Brooks.
Brooks, a 5’9, 185-pound 26-year-old, split time between Worcester and
Peoria last year, and managed 6-6-12 totals with 10 PIM in 32 games at the AHL
level. He is under an AHL contract to
Worcester.

 

Two other
members of the 2004-05 IceCats split time between Worcester and Peoria last
season. Gritty center Greg Black
had nine points and 129 PIM in 39 games for the Cats last year, and was slated
for the third line center role this season before a serious elbow injury
suffered in a fight in the first pre-season game. He will be out for several weeks as a result. Right wing prospect Colin Hemingway
had some personal issues that caused Blues’ management to assign him to Peoria
midway through last year, but while in the ECHL, Hemingway caught fire with 20
goals, 44 points and a +29 in 36 games with the Rivermen and earned a
late-season return call-up to Worcester.

 

Two other
players split time between the Cats and the NHL with the Blues. Center John Pohl only had a one-game cup of
coffee with the Blues, and had what some might consider a disappointing second
season in the AHL. Pohl struck for 16
goals and 41 points in 65 games for the Cats last year, but many were expecting
more from him after a 23-goal rookie campaign in 2002-03. The Blues still consider him in the team’s
plans as a supplemental scoring forward.

 

Left winger
Peter Sejna started 2003-04 with a lot of hype, and after an excellent
preseason in which he was paired most often with Doug Weight, Sejna seemed
poised to step right in an contribute regularly in the NHL. At the quarter pole of the 2003-04 season,
however, Sejna had managed only a pair of goals and four points (all on the
power play), was a -8, and seemed lost in the faster pace of the NHL. Assigned to Worcester at Thanksgiving 2003,
Sejna struggled initially to make the adjustment, and had some confidence
issues as well. By the end of the
2003-04 season, however, he had righted the ship and, most nights, was the top
player on the ice for Worcester. Sejna
finished with 41 points totals in 59 AHL games last year, and is being counted
on to lead the Worcester offense this season.
He has trained hard this offseason, and all indications are that he has
a rededicated himself to becoming the best player he can be.

 

Center Jay
McClement
has been climbing the depth chart in the Blues organization,
largely on the strength of his outstanding faceoff ability and commitment to
defense. As a rookie last season,
McClement brought with him a reputation for being a solid defense-first player,
and he also showed flashes of his upside on offense as well. The 6’1, 199-pounder finished with 12 goals
and 25 points, and was third on the team with a +6. He also led the team in shorthanded goals with two, and was tied
for third with three game-winners.
McClement is a player who will do whatever it takes to help his team
win, and can fit in on either a checking line or a scoring line.

 

The last
two forwards on the Cats’ 27-man roster are Blake Evans and last year’s
surprise scoring leader, Mike Glumac.
On the surface, these two players seem to be carbon copies of each
other. Both are 24 years old (Evans,
born in July of 1980 is three months younger than the April-born Glumac). Both tip the scales at 200 pounds. Evans checks in at 6’1, while Glumac stands
an inch taller. Both played the full
80-game schedule for the Cats last year, and both put up career-best goal
totals, Evans with 21 and Glumac with a team-leading 28.

 

Evans took
the junior route to the pros, and has been in the Blues system for three
seasons since signing as a free agent.
Glumac, also a free agent signing, joined the Blues organization last
year after a four-year collegiate career.
Both have their supporters in the Blues organization, and both will get
a look at the NHL level in the very near future.

 

By the
numbers:
The average
Worcester forward is 23.4 years old, stands just a shade under 6’1 (72.8
inches), and tips the scales at 200.4 pounds.
The nine forwards eligible for Blues’ prospect status as defined by Hockey’s
Future
standards (Black, DiSalvatore, Glumac, Hemingway, King,
McClement, Sejna, Shkotov, Zakharov) average 22.4 years old, just under 6’1
(72.8 inches) in height and 197.3 pounds.

 

Outlook

 

This IceCats
lineup may well turn out to be the best ever to take the ice in Worcester. There is a good mix of skill and toughness
among the forwards and defenseman, and the goaltending should be solid, very
nearly NHL-caliber.

 

There are
scoring forwards aplenty — Pohl, Sejna, Glumac, Evans, DiSalvatore and Hoggan
— to make up two solid scoring lines, along with the emerging Hemingway, who
will be asked to score at the AHL level with the same prowess he displayed in
half a season at Peoria. There is also
some solid rookie firepower in Ramsay, Shkotov and Zakharov, all of whom scored
more than 25 goals in junior last season.

 

The
checkers (Black, McClement) and grinders (Rajamaki, King, Gomez) are available
to fill the necessary roles, and support up front will come from players like
Jerant and Brooks.

 

On defense,
there is a mix of experience and youth, offense and stay-at-home defense,
physical play and solid positional play.
Wideman and Mottau will be available to quarterback the power play
units, and the veteran savvy of Brimanis
and Buckley will anchor the penalty-killing units.

 

Bacashihua
and Sanford will scrap for playing time, and coach Granato will have the happy
dilemma of choosing between two NHL-caliber goalies on a nightly basis. It may become an issue to find enough
minutes in the season to keep both these workhorses happy, but based on their
demonstrated past workloads, a 50-50 split will provide both goalies with about
40 games to strut their stuff.

 

This team
should be able to score, keep pucks out of the net, and stick up for each other
when push comes to shove. IceCat and
Blues fans alike should find plenty to keep them happy and interested as this
season progresses.

 

Copyright
2004 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate
without permission of the editorial staff.