The Peoria Rivermen enter the 2006-07 season, their second as the St. Louis Blues’ primary AHL affiliate, coming off a superb 100-point season in which they collected 46 wins. But in the playoffs, they suffered a disappointing first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the Houston Aeros. Head coach Dave Basseggio will have a reasonably similar line-up to the one he iced in 2005-06, but of course there has been the usual turnover and influx of new prospects to the farm system.
The Rivermen’s leading point-getter from 2005-06 is back in the AHL, at least for the start of the season. Jon DiSalvatore appeared in 72 games with the Rivermen last season, scoring 22 goals and 45 assists for a 67-point total. Other prominent forwards back for another year are Peter Sejna (50 points in 44 games), and Timofei Shishkanov (34 points in 58 games) after some question as to whether or not he would be playing in North America. Shishkanov is still on the Blues’ radar as a future NHLer, so his chances of being recalled at some point are decent. One of either Mike Glumac or Trent Whitfield should start the year in Peoria, as the two of them are battling for a final roster spot with the Blues. They are both first line caliber players in the minors.
Prospect Ryan Ramsay is also returning at center. The 2005-06 season was Ramsay’s second in the AHL, and saw him produce 14 goals and 25 points. Alexei Shkotov is back in the fold after spending the 2005-06 year playing in Russia. In 2004-05, he played 23 games with the Worcester Ice Cats, who were St. Louis’ AHL affiliate at the time, scoring 12 points. Konstantin Zakharov is in a similar situation after 59 games in the AHL in 2004-05. His only North American playing time in 2005-06 was eight games in the ECHL with the Alaska Aces. Enforcer D.J. King enters his third minor-league season after accumulating 338 penalty minutes in the previous two.
The crop of rookies destined for Peoria appears strong. Amongst them is David Backes, who is entering his first full professional campaign. In a 12-game stint at the end of 2005-06 after graduating from Minnesota State-Mankato, Backes recorded 10 points. The young winger should figure prominently in the Rivermen scoring attack as long as he isn’t called up to the NHL. The fact that he didn’t last very long at Blues camp, and that he’s only a first-year pro, indicates that the Blues will probably elect to keep Backes in the minors for a full year of seasoning unless they are hit hard by injuries.
After an explosive 85-point junior season with Saginaw in the OHL, Michal Birner will make his professional debut. He has been an offensive-minded winger at all previous levels of hockey, so the Rivermen should be looking for some production out of him. Also embarking on his initial North American season is 26-year-old Swede Magnus Kahnberg, who performed well in Blues training camp. Kahnberg was acquired last year in the trade that sent Doug Weight to Carolina.
This year’s defense corps should look fairly similar to the 2005-06 edition. And that’s good news, as the Rivermen were one of the AHL’s top defensive teams. Mike Mottau, who recorded 56 points, is no longer with the team, so coach Basseggio will need somebody else to step up and replace some lost production. Jeff Woywitka and Doug Lynch are again back in Peoria and the likelihood of either one living up to the potential they once possessed is starting to become remote. When in the AHL, both will provide steady defensive play, concentrating more on their own zone than jumping into the rush. With Mottau absent, Woywitka might see a larger amount of power-play time and could see his point total increase. Another defensive blueliner, Aaron Mackenzie is entering his fourth AHL season and has proven to be reliable. The one rearguard who can be expected to score some goals is Tomas Mojzis. In 49 games in 2005-06, he found the net eight times and added 17 assists for a respectable 25 points. Veterans Mike Stuart, Rocky Thompson, and Jamie Rivers, a free-agent pick-up, should also be in the mix on defense. Zack FitzGerald will be looking for full-time duty as the resident enforcer on the blue line in the AHL this season after 12 appearances in 2005-06 in which he racked up 47 penalty minutes. Patrick Wellar will also be looking for a roster spot in Peoria after spending almost all of 2005-06 in the ECHL with Alaska. But with several players ahead of them on the depth chart, the latter two are probable to begin the season with Alaska and be called up when injuries occur.
Roman Polak appears to be the only rookie who will be patrolling the Rivermen blue line for the time being. He spent 2005-06 in the Czech Republic with Vitkovice and represented the Czech contingent and the World Junior Championship. He is a defensive-minded player, which might make the transition to the North American game a little easier. Chances are good that he spends the year in Peoria.
There is no doubt that the area of most uncertainty is between the pipes. It is still unclear as to whom the Blues will choose to back up Manny Legace. Both Curtis Sanford and Jason Bacashihua have a good case for the job, but of course only one will remain with the big club. Assuming that neither one is traded or picked off waivers (as there is very little market for goaltenders right now), the goaltender who is sent down will be the starter. Either Sanford or Bacashihua are very capable AHL goaltenders and that should give the Rivermen a chance to win on most nights.
So then it becomes a question of who will be the back-up in the AHL. Second-year pro Chris Beckford-Tseu and rookie Marek Schwarz are the two candidates. Beckford-Tseu had an outstanding 2005-06 season in the ECHL, leading the Alaska Aces to the league title, but is unproven at the American league level. Schwarz has a tremendous upside and is the Blues’ third-ranked prospect, but is only 20 years old. Because Schwarz came over from Europe where he played at a high level, it seems logical that he is more ready.
The Rivermen should ice a formidable team throughout 2006-07. Their offense might only be average, but they are very solid on defense and in net. They have enough depth at all positions, save possibly center, that they should be able to withstand a fair number of call-ups. That could be an important factor seeing as the Blues have a number of players over the age of 30 who could be more susceptible to injuries. As a whole, Peoria should not have a great deal of difficulty in reaching the playoffs, and are definitely capable of doing some damage this season.
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