St. Louis Blues deep on defense but lack offense at the AHL level

By Suraj Sukumar
Mark Cundari - St. Louis Blues

Photo: Defenseman Mark Cundari, signed as a free agent by the Blues in 2010, ranks fourth overall on the Peoria Rivermen with 20 points this season. (courtesy of Dave Reginek/Getty Images)

 
With immense depth at the NHL, junior and European levels of hockey, it should come as no surprise that the St. Louis Blues are lacking offensively-dominant players at the AHL and ECHL levels. Jaden Schwartz has been called-up to the big club, while Vladimir Tarasenko has finally come over from Europe. As more talented prospects make their way to the big club, the AHL affiliate Peoria Rivermen has started to struggle as a result.

The Rivermen are currently 21-21-4-2 and could use a serious boost in offense to compete with the rest of the AHL. While there are several prospects that should make their way from junior next season, the current players will have a difficult time in making up for that offensive production. Several members of the Rivermen have spent time with the Evansville Icemen of the ECHL due to lack of production. It will be interesting to see if any player on this list can step up and help their team down the stretch. Here is a breakdown of the St. Louis Blues’ minor league prospects playing in professional levels of hockey. 

NHL

Jaden Schwartz, LW, 20

Jaden Schwartz has enjoyed a promotion since training camp with the St. Louis Blues. After dominating the college ranks at Colorado College, Schwartz was called upon in the 2011-12 season by the St. Louis Blues. He ended up playing 7 games and managed two goals and one assist.

Due to the lockout, Schwartz started his 2012-13 season in the AHL with the Peoria Rivermen. In 33 games, he managed a respectable nine goals and 19 points. He is still quite young and his game will take some time to develop at the pro level. He is a great playmaker with the ability to score goals, but has the hockey sense and tenacity to contribute even when he is not scoring. However, if he does not improve his performance this NHL season (just one assist through 10 NHL games), Schwartz will find himself in a bottom-six role with the Blues or sent back to Peoria to improve his game for the pro ranks.  

Vladimir Tarasenko, RW, 21

Vladimir Tarasenko spent significant time playing in the KHL with grown men leading up to his highly-anticipated debut in North America. Once the lockout came to an end, Tarasenko made his way over to St. Louis with hopes of making the team out of camp, and he did just that.

After scoring 31 points in 31 games with St. Petersburg SKA of the KHL in 2012-13, Tarasenko began his NHL career with a bang. In 13 games with the Blues so far, Tarasenko has six goals and five assists, making him an early Calder Trophy candidate. Tarasenko has game-changing offensive skill and has already demonstrated that in the NHL. Furthermore, he has developed great chemistry with his Blues’ linemates and should remain a dominant fixture in the Blues’ lineup for years to come.

Ian Cole, D, 23

Ian Cole has had to work very hard to earn a full-time roster spot with the St. Louis Blues. He was drafted in the first round back in 2007, as a college product, and joined the AHL ranks in 2009-10. He has been back and forth between the AHL and NHL between that rookie season and the current one.

Cole started the lockout season with the Rivermen and was on a career-changing pace before the NHL season got underway. In 34 games with the Rivermen, Cole had three goals and 14 points, nearly eclipsing his career best 15 points in 44 games in his rookie season. He made the Blues’ roster right out of camp and has been a major part of their blue line ever since. While he is not looked upon to generate much offense, in seven games thus far, Cole has just one assist with the Blues.  With 59 NHL games played in his career, Cole is nearly graduated from prospect status.

AHL

Jake Allen, G, 22

Jake Allen has had an above average season with the Peoria Rivermen thus far in the AHL. He currently supports a 2.94 goals against average and a 0.903 save percentage with a record of 12-16-2. Due to an injury to Jaroslav Halak, Allen has gotten his first opportunity in the NHL. Although he gave up two goals on eight shots in his first appearance of the season, he earned his first NHL win on February 13th in an overtime victory over the Central Division rival Red Wings.

He is a young goaltender with already a plethora of experiences under his belt. For now, Allen remains the next in line to merit a position with the St. Louis Blues. Nevertheless, it will be some time before Allen gets a full-time chance while Brian Elliott and Halak hold down the fort.

Tyler Shattock, RW, 23

Tyler Shattock had a very long and successful junior career in the WHL before getting his pro chance with the Rivermen. After two poor seasons at the AHL level, Shattock started the 2012-13 season in the ECHL. After putting up a dominant three goals and two assists in three games, Shattock was called back up to the Rivermen. He has played 39 games and amassed three goals and six assists.

Shattock has some postseason experience in the WHL along with four games in the AHL playoffs as well.  He has played in big games and demonstrated tremendous skill at the ECHL level. Nevertheless, Shattock must improve his 2012-13 AHL season numbers or fear another demotion to the Evansville Icemen.

Cade Fairchild, D, 24

Cade Fairchild put up very respectable numbers in 2011-12 with 34 points in 68 points, which was good enough to be named to the AHL All-Star game. He was given a five game tryout with the Blues last season and recorded one assist. This season, Fairchild has played in 30 AHL games and recorded just four assists, with a minus-8 rating. He was a plus-26 last season.

With Ian Cole getting time with the big club, Fairchild is a major part of the Rivermen and needs to improve his showing this season. With so much depth in the Blues' system, Fairchild will stay with the Rivermen to improve his game and become a more integral part of their team.

Philip McRae, C, 22

Phil McRae has been a pro at the AHL level for almost three seasons and has shown he belongs in the professional ranks. After a great junior career, McRae got his first NHL stint in his rookie pro season. Playing 15 games with the Blues, McRae scored one goal and added two assists. This year, McRae has played in 44 games for the Rivermen and scored seven goals and 18 points, good for fifth in team scoring.

Once again, the depth on the Blues will prevent McRae from getting a shot with the NHL club in the near future. He has proven he can play at the AHL level and needs to put up consistent point production to be considered a future NHL player. Only 22, his professional career is still quite young and his level of skill will continue to develop at the AHL level.

Cody Beach, RW, 20

Cody Beach had a tough-as-nails career throughout junior. While he is known for dropping the gloves, Beach managed almost a point-per-game in his last year of junior with the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL. He had 229 penalty minutes in his final season of junior to go along with 56 points in 58 games.

In 2012-13, Beach has spent time in the ECHL, scoring two goals and nine points in 24 games. He was promoted to the AHL and has one goal and six points in 15 AHL games so far this season. He has already made his name in the physicality department and produced on the stat sheet as well. He will see plenty of time with the Rivermen to develop his skills before a look in the NHL.

Jay Barriball, LW, 25

Since Jay Barriball took his spot among the AHL ranks after a solid college career, he has had his fair share of ups and downs. Being a 25 year old prospect, Barriball is slowly running out of time to prove himself. He suffered an injury prior to this season and was not available until January of 2013.

Barriball started the 2012-13 with the Bloomington Blaze of the Central Hockey League before getting his chance with the Rivermen again. Though injuries have hindered Barriball's progression, his success at the AHL has been limited. He will really need to turn his play around for the rest of the season or else he could lose his standing in the Blues system.

Brett Ponich, D, 21

Even in the WHL with the Portland Winterhawks, Brett Ponich was not known for his offensive output. In the AHL, his production has decreased significantly in the offensive department. Last season, Ponich played 61 games in his rookie campaign and managed just five assists.

Due to his lack of production at the AHL level, Ponich started the season in the ECHL with the Icemen, but quickly proved his worth in 13 games, managing a goal, three points, and a plus-3 rating. However, the struggles have seemed to return for Ponich. In 18 games with the Rivermen, he has yet to record a point in 2012-13. He is still young and known for his defensive game, so it will be important for him to remain solid defensively and bring a physical element to his game. That should keep him in the AHL for the time being.

Evgeny Grachev, C, 22

Evgeny Grachev had a long stint with the Blues in 2011-12 but failed to do enough to keep the roster spot full-time. He was originally drafted by the New York Rangers, who gave him an eight game tryout before returning him back to the AHL affiliate.

This season, Grachev has done little, once again, to merit another chance in the NHL. In 48 games thus far, Grachev has eight goals and eight assists. He needs to limit the penalty minutes and improve his offensive consistency if he hopes to be an effective scorer at the professional level. For now, Grachev will try to find his scoring touch in the AHL.

Mark Cundari, D, 22

Mark Cundari could quite possibly be the best defensemen in the Blues' minor league system. Cundari had a stellar junior performance with the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL, and after he was signed as a free agent by the Blues, he was an instant success at the AHL level with the Rivermen in 2010-11. In 69 games played in his rookie season, Cundari had 10 goals and 30 points with a plus-6 rating.

He was limited to 48 games in 2011-12 but showed the consistencies in his game. This season, Cundari leads all Rivermen defensemen in points, with three goals and 20 points in 39 games. With the departure of Ian Cole, Cundari has stepped up in a big way for the Rivermen, and will continue to log the big-minutes in the AHL.  

Anthony Nigro, C, 23

Anthony Nigro finished a strong junior career with the Ottawa 67's before getting his first chance with the Peoria Rivermen. In his first season, he managed 15 points in 54 games. After a similar showing in 2011-12, Nigro was slated to start the season with the Icemen.

Nigro played 19 games in the ECHL and recorded three goals and eight points, which got him his promotion back to the Peoria Rivermen. He currently has two goals and four assists in 20 games. He will most likely remain with the AHL affiliate, and will need to prove he belongs, or suffer another demotion to Evansville.

David Shields, D, 22

David Shields had a phenomenal career with the Erie Otters before getting drafted in 2009 by the Blues. He was given an opportunity in the AHL but failed to record a goal in 48 games, managing just four assists. He was sent down to the Alaska Aces of the ECHL, but proved he does have the skill to skate in the AHL after recording six points in 12 games.

This season, Shields is once again lacking a scoring touch. In 37 games, Shields has a mere three assists and a minus-8 rating. He is not necessarily looked to for offense, but considering his experience in big games and defensive ability, he will continue to be an important player on the Peoria blue line.

Brett Sonne, C, 23

Brett Sonne has had quite a lengthy professional career already. He was drafted in 2007 and has played with the Rivermen since 2009-10. Between his two seasons coming into 2012-13, Sonne played a total of a 132 AHL games and managed just 13 goals and 13 assists. This is not the type of player the Blues were hoping Sonne would become.

Due to his disappointing performances, Sonne started the 2012-13 campaign with the ECHL's Icemen. After scoring at a point-per-game pace with three goals and four assists in seven games, Sonne was returned to the AHL affiliate Rivermen. Nevertheless, Sonne has played in 39 games and managed just four goals and five assists. He will likely continue to fight for a full-time role with the Rivermen. 

Paul Karpowich, G, 24

Paul Karpowich was drafted in 2008 and played a four year college career at Clarkson University before joining the Evansville Icemen of the ECHL. Thus far, Karpowich maintains a record of 7-12-2 with a .905 save percentage and 3.08 goals against average in the ECHL.

Due to the recent call up of Jake Allen, Karpowich has been summoned to join the AHL affiliate Rivermen but has yet to play a game. The opportunity to prove himself at the professional level is now upon Karpowich, and hopefully he seizes the chance. Judging by his college numbers, Karpowich has a knack for improving over time. With a strong showing in the AHL, Karpowich could make a strong impression to stick with the club this season and improve his chances of playing in the AHL full-time next season.

ECHL

Stefan Della Rovere, LW, 22

Stefan Della Rovere has had a difficult professional career to date. After having a very successful career with the Barrie Colts of the OHL, Della Rovere was initially drafted by the Washington Capitals and later acquired after the 2009-10 season by the Blues. He played seven games with the Blues in 2010-11 before getting sent back down to the AHL.

Della Rovere has played 11 games in the AHL but recorded just one goal in that span, resulting in him spending a majority of his year in Evansville. He has played 10 games and recorded four assists in 2012-13. He will likely remain with the Icemen in the ECHL until he proves he belongs in the AHL.