St. Louis Blues prospects off to strong start in 2012-13

By Suraj Sukumar
Jordan Binnington - Owen Sound Attack

Photo: Owen Sound goaltender Jordan Binnington is off to a fantastic start to his OHL campaign and will suit up for Team Canada at the WJC. (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

 
The St. Louis Blues have benefited from recent NHL Draft selections and their success in finding NHL-bound stars will likely continue. With the lockout in full swing, many prospects have been given extra time to hone their skills at other levels of hockey. Furthermore, at the mid-season juncture of the CHL, many of the Blues prospects have been proving why they were worthy draft selections. 

The following group of NHL hopefuls have been making a splash in their respective leagues and, when the NHL does resume, could have a legitimate opportunity to claim a spot on the Blues’ roster. Mind you, a big issue for the Blues will be signing their free agents come the 2013-14 season.  How the current lockout plays out, and each player’s individual performances, will determine their future in the Blues organization.

Pro

Top Pro Prospect
Jaden Schwartz, LW, Peoria Rivermen (AHL)

If the NHL season started as planned, Jaden Schwartz would have had every opportunity to prove why he belongs in the NHL. In seven games with the Blues in 2011-12, Schwartz scored two goals and added one assist. While fellow Blues prospect Vladimir Tarasenko could possess the edge in pure goal scoring ability, Schwartz has the makings of a complete player. Schwartz has dominated the college and amateur level, and is now playing for the Peoria Rivermen in the AHL. In 28 games, Schwartz has nine goals and eight assists. If Schwartz can improve his defensive game, while also increasing his strength and size, he could become a force for the Blues when the NHL season does get underway.

Offensive Breakout
Ian Cole, D, Peoria Rivermen (AHL)

Ian Cole has battled for his position with several talented defensemen, including Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. After taking on the title of a shut-down defenseman, Cole has seen a welcoming spike in his offensive output. In 2011-12, Cole amassed four points, a goal and three assists, in 22 games with the Peoria Rivermen. In 29 games this season, Cole has three goals and 10 assists, while also maintaining his naturally defensive game. Given that Cole would become a restricted free agent in 2013-14, his new found offensive production could not have come at a better time. When the NHL does start up again, Cole could be in line for a top-six role with the Blues.

Unsigned in 2013-14
Jake Allen, G, Peoria Rivermen (AHL)

Jake Allen has already had quite the memorable hockey career. His QMJHL career was nothing short of spectacular, winning the CHL Goaltender of the Year award in 2009-10. After a great showing at the 2010 World Junior Championships, Allen has played consistently well for the Peoria Rivermen.  However, thus far in the 2012-13 AHL season, Allen has seen a dip in his statistics from his previous seasons with the Rivermen. Nevertheless, he still has the rest of the season to prove his worth at the professional level.  Allen is set to become a restricted free agent in 2013-14, and with the tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott at the NHL level, Allen’s future seems difficult to predict with the Blues organization.  If he does choose to turn it up a notch, Allen should be considered one of the better goalie prospects in the NHL.

Junior

Top Junior Prospect
Ty Rattie, RW, Portland Winterhawks (WHL)

Ty Rattie has officially outlived his time in the Western Hockey League. Last season, Rattie had 57 goals and 64 assists in only 69 games.  This performance alone could have merited a chance to play for the Blues, but the lockout forced him back to the WHL. In 30 games played, Rattie has 19 goals and 28 assists while maintaining a plus-28 rating. Rattie has yet to record a minus rating in the WHL, and will be showcasing his talents during the 2013 World Junior Championships this winter for Canada. If he performs as well as he has in the WHL, Rattie will surely make a name for himself even before he wears a Blues jersey. In elite company with Team Canada, Rattie should be considered a high-end NHL prospect at this point in time.   

Bounce Back Prospect
Jordan Binnington, G, Owen Sound Attack (OHL)

A bounce back would not be the best way to define Jordan Binnington’s game. He is currently in his fourth season with the Owen Sound Attack in the Ontario Hockey League and has become one of the best goaltending prospects at the junior level. Thus far in the OHL, Binnington has performed tremendously, maintaining career highs in all major categories including: goals against (2.31), save percentage (0.930) and shutouts (3).  Binnington has also been selected to participate in this winter’s WJCs to represent Canada. The WJC experience and current workload in the OHL have ensured Binnington the most opportunities to excel in preparation for the professional level. If he continues to play similar to this season, Binnington would have surely made a name for himself come the start of the next NHL season.

Offensive Breakout
Dmitri Jaskin, RW, Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL)

After two seasons in the Czech Extraliga with HC Slavia Praha, Dmitrij Jaskin has taken the QMJHL by storm. After joining the Moncton Wildcats, Jaskin has recorded 23 goals and 27 assists in 31 games with his new club. Jaskin clearly has the the size and puckhandling skills to be a force at the major junior level. If he can transition this skill to the professional level, the Blues are benefiting from a great second round draft pick. His success in the QMJHL this season has not gone unnoticed, as Jaskin was selected to the Czech Republic World Junior Championship squad, along with the other two junior players mentioned above. Jaskin, similar to Rattie and Binnington, will have a WJC tournament to prove to the world why he should be considered one of the best NHL prospects in the world.

Amateur

Top Amateur Prospect
MacKenzie MacEachern, LW, Chicago Steel (USHL)

MacKenzie MacEachern has had quite the start to his amateur hockey career. Currently playing his first year in the USHL for the Chicago Steel, MacEachern has gotten off to a very hot start with three goals and six assists in only eleven games. Although limited by injury, his play has included everything from highlight-reel goals to huge checks, causing the excitement surrounding his game to continue to grow. He will have time to fill out his 6'3 frame as he finishes the year with the Steel and moves on to Michigan State University to continue his development at the NCAA level next season. He was drafted by the Blues out of high school in the third round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft and could be a ways away from cracking the NHL lineup. Nevertheless, MacEachern is working his way through the ranks and will be followed closely from this point on.

Bounce Back Prospect
Max Gardiner, C, Penn State University

Max Gardiner was drafted in 2010 in the third round, and is now playing for Penn State University. After stints with the University of Minnesota in the WCHA and the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL, Gardiner is now trying to work his way up as a sophomore in the NCAA. In 15 games, Gardiner has scored two goals and notched seven helpers while becoming a major part of the Nittany Lions’ offense. It will be some time before Gardiner comes up in talks for a chance at the NHL, but he is definitely moving in the right direction.

Freshman to Watch
Jordan Schmaltz, D, University of North Dakota (WCHA)

Jordan Schmaltz will be talked about by the end of this season, or at least he should be. In just over two seasons as a defenseman in the USHL, Schmaltz played in 110 games and recorded 85 points, 23 goals and 62 assists, to be exact. Given his age, Schmaltz was unmatched at the USHL level, both on the blue line and the score sheet. He is now in his freshman year at the University of North Dakota, and has amassed a goal and three assists in 18 games played. While his offensive statistics are not up to par with his USHL output, Schmaltz still has the rest of the season to improve on those numbers. Not to mention, he was drafted 25th overall by the Blues for a reason, which means Schmaltz has top-four defensemen written all over him. Hopefully, he can finish with a strong freshman year and prove why he was worthy of a first round selection.

Europe

Top European Prospect
Vladimir Tarasenko, RW, SKA St. Petersburg (KHL)

The duel for best prospect in the Blues organization would surely be between Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko. As mentioned, Tarasenko has magical offensive gifts, and has proven his abilities at the KHL level for almost five seasons and counting. Sadly, he has yet to play for the anxious Blues, and with the current lockout underway, it will have to be even longer before Tarasenko joins the NHL. After four seasons with Sibir Novosibirsk, Tarasenko joined SKA St. Petersburg in 2011-12. So far, Tarasenko has played 26 games in 2012-13 and has scored 13 goals to go along with 16 assists. Averaging over a point-per-game, Tarasenko seems poised to take his talents to the next level. When the NHL does resume, and the Blues are able to convince him to travel to North America, Tarasenko could go from one of the most anticipated NHL prospects to full-blown NHL star.

First Year Pro to Watch Overseas
Petteri Lindbohm, D, Jokerit Helsinki (SM-liiga)

Petteri Lindbohm has had the great pleasure of joining Jokerit Helsinki of the SM-liiga, which is home to fellow Blues prospect Teemu Eronen. The most fantastic part of his rookie campaign is the chance to play with Ottawa's Erik Karlsson, one of the best defenseman the NHL has to offer. While playing with big names can help many players, Lindbohm has played 23 games and amassed just four assists.  However, points are not everything, and his experiences playing with an elite level defenseman can only make him better.  While he is still young and playing in a very competitive league, his output for the rest of the season will help determine his NHL future. Given the depth on the blue line for the Blues, it will be quite some time before Lindbohm sees any NHL action. With that said, he will have ample opportunities to improve his game before that time comes.     

Bounce Back Prospect
Jori Lehtera, C, Sibir Novosibirsk (KHL)

As a general manager it may be difficult to gauge the recent success of Jori Lehtera. Lehtera was drafted back in 2008 and is now 25 years old. While he showed tremendous skill in the SM-liiga, it took him some time to reach the same level of play in the KHL. It was after leaving Lokomotiv Yaroslavl for Sibir Novosibirsk that Lehtera began to find his groove again. He finished the 2011-12 season with 10 goals and 16 assists in 25 games. This season, Lehtera has 10 goals and 27 assists in 36 games. Managing a point-per-game pace with Novosibirsk, Lehtera seems to be making a good case for himself. With the lack of scoring centers in the Blues organization, Lehtera could be in for a massive responsibility increase if his European success continues. However, whether or not he would be willing to work his way up through the Blues' organization remains a question.