St. Louis Blues boast top-end talent and depth in the pipeline

By Suraj Sukumar
Jordan Schmaltz - St. Louis Blues

Photo: The St. Louis Blues addressed the blue line with their first pick in 2012, drafting dynamic defenseman Jordan Schmaltz with the 25th overall pick. (courtesy of Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

 
The St. Louis Blues are one of few teams to have assets at every position. While the level of skill and potential role could be quite different between each player, the fact remains that the Blues have one of the best crop of players heading into the 48-game NHL season.

The lines entering camp include some notable names in terms of prospects. While these should not be considered the finalized lineup, it is a good indication of rookies or returning players that could get some looks this NHL season. While the Blues have several names to keep track of, there will be only a few that crack the lineup on a long-term basis as the NHL season progresses. Here is a positional breakdown of the St. Louis Blues entering the 2013 NHL season, and the notable players that should be monitored as the hockey season plays out.

Left Wing

There is little competition between left wingers in terms of the best. Jaden Schwartz has held this title for quite some time in terms of prospects, and many Blues fans are anticipating the young forward’s NHL career. He has currently played 33 games for the Peoria Rivermen of the AHL and has nine goals and 10 assists. While the numbers do not suggest an incredibly gifted offensive player, Schwartz has a two-way game that could help the Blues in the future when current stars start to dwindle. The most recent news out of Blues camp has Schwartz skating on a line with Patrik Berglund and Chris Stewart, which could prove to be a good second or great third line. If Schwartz makes the roster out of camp, it should be interesting to see how long he stays with the big club as a playoff berth is surely guaranteed for the defensively-sound Blues.

A few notable left wings within the Blues’ organization are Ryan Tesink, Yannick Veilleux, and Mackenzie MacEachern. Both Tesink and Veilleux play in the QMJHL and are off to great seasons with their respective teams. Tesink was second in scoring for the Saint John Sea Dogs, only behind highly touted prospect Jonathan Huberdeau (FLA), before being acquired by the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada during the 2012-13 season. After putting up 38 points in 35 games with the Sea Dogs, Tesink currently has a goal and three assists in his first six games with the Armada. On the other hand, Veilleux, who played his first three seasons of junior hockey with the Shawinigan Cataractes, was acquired by the Moncton Wildcats for 2012-13 and has accumulated 42 points in 41 games. Both Tesink and Veilleux seem like great acquisitions for the Blues, but due to long list of talent on the wings, it may be quite some time before either of them sees NHL action.

MacEachern is putting on quite the show with the Chicago Steel of the USHL, although he has been limited by injury. In 21 games, MacEachern currently has four goals and 11 points in his first season out of high school. While his NHL debut could be far in the future, MacEachern should be considered a great prospect in the Blues system.

While there are several great prospects to keep track of at the left wing position, the Blues have their own struggling players as well. The most notable names are Stefan Della Rovere and Jay Barriball. Della Rovere represented Canada at the 2009 World Junior Championships due to a stellar junior career with the Barrie Colts. However, after getting drafted by the Washington Capitals in the seventh round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, it has been a difficult professional career for Della Rovere. He has only played in seven games for the St. Louis Blues and managed an even rating and 11 penalty minutes. This season Della Rovere has split time between the Evansville Icemen of the ECHL and the Rivermen. On the other hand, Jay Barriball started out with the University of Minnesota in the WCHA and after playing five seasons at the college level, he joined the AHL affiliate. After starting the 2012-13 season with the Bloomington Blaze of the Central Hockey League, Barriball was promoted back to the Rivermen mid-season where he will likely remain for the near future. With that said, a future in the NHL does not seem likely for the either of the struggling left wingers.

Center

While the bigger names in the Blues organization remain on the wings, their crop of centers should not be overlooked. Philip McRae is the highest ranked prospect at center, but his numbers do not suggest an immediate role with the Blues. In 36 games with the Rivermen, McRae has currently scored six goals and a total of 13 points. While these are respectable numbers for a young player in the pros, the depth of the NHL club will limit McRae’s chances of getting a call-up, at least for now. A few other prospects currently playing for the Rivermen are Evgeny Grachev and Brett Sonne, who will likely remain with the AHL affiliate for the time being. Rounding up the pro ranks is recently demoted Anthony Nigro, who is currently playing for the ECHL’s Evansville Icemen and has two goals and seven points in 17 ECHL games. 

In terms of college prospects, Max Gardiner has spent the 2012-13 campaign with the NCAA’s Penn State Nittany Lions, scoring two goals and 14 points. Clearly, playmaking is a big part of the 20-year-old’s game and could become a great addition to the Blues roster in the future. Another college prospect in the Blues’ ranks is Max Tardy. Tardy is currently playing for the University of Minnesota-Duluth and has just one assist in nine games. For now, both players will most likely finish their careers at the college level before receiving a chance to join the pros.

Tyrel Seaman is currently the only center prospect at the junior level and is in his third year with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL. He has three goals and eight points in 24 games to go along with 15 penalty minutes. Seaman has been suffering from a concussion and has not been able to play, which is especially limiting for a player that can play physically and drop the gloves on occasion. For now, Seaman will concentrate on getting healthy and become an effective player at the junior level.

Lastly, one of the few European prospects listed with the Blues is Jori Lehtera. Lehtera is currently playing for Sibir Novosibirsk of the KHL and has managed a point-per-game pace with 41 in 41 games. He is also supporting a rating of plus-17 which defends his two-way game quite well. In fact, Lehtera has yet to record a minus rating in the KHL with three seasons under his belt. In four seasons in the SM-liiga, Lehtera was a minus player just once in 2008-09 with a rating of minus-1. He is currently 25 and could be spending his best years in Europe, but an eventual shot with an NHL team is still a possibility for the skilled center.

Right Wing

The most exciting and anticipated prospect in the Blues’ system, and the NHL, is Vladimir Tarasenko. After the long wait, Tarasenko has joined the 2013 Blues training camp and could easily be in line for a top-six role with the NHL club. He spent the lockout playing for SKA St. Petersburg on a line with Ilya Kovalchuk, and it certainly helped his numbers. For the first time in his career, Tarasenko was a point-per-game player with 31 points in 31 games. His best showing in the KHL thus far was 38 points in 39 games with Sibir Novosibirsk, before joining SKA in the middle of the 2011-12 season. He finished with nine points in his first 15 games with St. Petersburg. Nevertheless, Tarasenko is almost guaranteed a spot with the NHL club for the shortened season, and his production in the KHL this year will surely help his confidence.

There are several right wing prospects currently playing for the AHL affiliate Peoria Rivermen. Tyler Shattock and Cody Beach are also right wingers currently buried on the Rivermen roster.  Shattock currently has two goals and five points in 30 games, while Beach has maintained a productive six points in nine games and 26 penalty minutes. It would seem that both have maintained roles with the AHL affiliate and will remain with the Rivermen for the near future.

At the college level, Sam Kurker remains the only prospect at right wing for the Blues. Kurker was drafted in the second round of the 2012 NHL Draft and is currently in his rookie season at Boston University. In 15 games, Kurker has two goals and one assist. Nevertheless, he is still only eighteen years old and will have plenty of time to develop at the college level.

The most notable group of right wing prospects are currently playing in junior hockey. Both Ty Rattie and Dmitri Jaskin have been tearing up the WHL and QMJHL, respectively. While Rattie has 19 goals and 56 points in 34 games, Jaskin has put up 27 goals and 59 points in just 33 games. With numbers like these, the depth at the right wing position for the Blues is becoming difficult to manage. While Rattie has outlived his development program in junior, Jaskin has played in the Czech league with Slavia Praha HC before playing for the Moncton Wildcats in 2012-13. Both players possess tremendous potential and it will be interesting to see how both players fair heading into next season and a legitimate shot to crack the Blues roster.

On the negative side, Sebastian Wannstrom was demoted from the the Rivermen to the ECHL’s Icemen. The good news is that in 10 games he has five goals and six points, which will help bring his confidence back to reach the AHL level once again. If he does not find his game at the AHL level, he will surely fall farther behind the other wing prospects, especially with great performances from players like Jaskin and Rattie. 

Defense

The defensive corps on the St. Louis Blues should be considered one of the best in the NHL. With that said, it would be difficult for many of the current prospects to have a chance at making the roster for the shortened 48-game season. Names like Cade Fairchild, Brett Ponich, David Shields, and Mark Cundari will surely be staying with the AHL affiliate for the time being, but it is Ian Cole that stands as the best defenseman in the Blues organization. He currently has two goals and 16 points with the AHL affiliate Rivermen and has reported to the Blues’ training camp for the coming 48-game season. The most recent report out of Blues’ training camp has Cole skating with Roman Polak as a potential defensive pairing. With several players locked in on the blue-line, Cole is currently fighting for one of the last spots on the Blues defensive unit. If he does not make the cut, he will be returned to Peoria and have to wait for an opening in St. Louis.

At the college level, highly touted defensive prospect Jordan Schmaltz is still a ways away from having a shot with the NHL club. In any case, Schmaltz recently joined the University of North Dakota and will continue to develop in the WCHA. Another notable prospect at the college level is Colton Parayko, who currently plays for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and has three goals and three assists in 16 games.  He was drafted in the third round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft and, similar to Schmaltz, will stay at the college level to hone his skills for the pros.

There are two defensive prospects currently playing at the junior level and one is tough guy Nick Walters. After starting the 2012-13 campaign with the Everett Silvertips, and posting a whopping 70 penalty minutes in 35 games, Walters was acquired by the Brandon Wheat Kings. In his debut on January 11th 2013, Walters had three assists to go along with a plus-three rating in a 6-1 win over the Moose Jaw Warriors. The move to the Wheat Kings seems to have helped Walters, and in the long run the St. Louis Blues as well. However, the most promising prospect at the junior level is Joel Edmundson of the Kamloops Blazers. He initially started the 2012-13 campaign with the Moose Jaw Warriors but was acquired by the Blazers at a very high cost, including two players and a first round pick. Edmundson was acquired for his size and physicality which will help the Blazers on the blue line down the stretch. While he is not expected to make the jump to the NHL any time soon, look for Edmundson to make a statement with the Kamloops Blazers as the WHL season progresses. 

There are three notable prospects in Europe for the Blues, and interestingly enough, all play in the SM-liiga. Jani Hakanpaa, Teemu Eronen, and Petteri Lindbohm were drafted in 2010, 2011 and 2012, respectively. In his second season for the Espoo Blues, Hakanpaa has only two goals and two assists in 28 games, which could end up being worse totals than his rookie season (five goals, seven assists). On a lighter note, and one which could be quite beneficial for the St. Louis Blues in the long run, as both Eronen and Lindbohm play for Jokerit Helsinki. While Eronen is in his fifth season with the team, Lindbohm is currently playing in his rookie year. Eronen has a very respectable 13 assists and 19 points in 38 games while Lindbohm has only four assists in 25 games.

Goaltending

There are a few notable goaltenders that should be considered quality prospects and have continued to develop well. Most notably, Jake Allen and Jordan Binnington seem to be the most promising goaltenders in the Blues’ system, while Niklas Lundstrom, Francois Tremblay, and Paul Karpowich remain prospects within the organization.

Allen has had a tremendous hockey career thus far and seems to be poised to have a chance at the NHL down the line. He is currently playing for the Peoria Rivermen in the AHL and supports a goals against average of 3.04, a save percentage of .901, and a record of 9-14-2. The Rivermen are currently thirteenth in the Western Conference, so Allen’s numbers are definitely reflective of the team’s struggles. Nevertheless he should still be considered a high-end goalie prospect.

Another high-end goalie prospect is Jordan Binnington, who has had a superb 2012-13 campaign.  Binnington was selected to Team Canada for the 2012 World Junior Championship and is currently one of the best goalies in the OHL. He supports an 18-6-4 record with the Owen Sound Attack, while also posting a 2.21 goals against average and .931 save percentage. If Jake Allen turns out to lack the qualifications of an NHL goaltender, Binnington looks like a great fall-back plan for the Blues organization. 

It would be safe to assume that any name on this list will not be getting a crack, at least any time soon, with the St. Louis Blues. The starting job alone is shared between two goalies in Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, who are more than deserving of split duties. With that said, the goaltenders in the Blues’ system have ample time to develop before taking a shot at the NHL level.