Blues AHL/ECHL prospects update

By Kyle McMahon

The St. Louis Blues currently have 16 prospects who are either in the minor leagues, or have played in the minors at some point in the 2006-07 season. Most of these prospects are playing in the AHL with the Peoria Rivermen, while a couple of them have spent time in the ECHL with the Alaska Aces.

The Rivermen, expected to contend for the Calder Cup this season, are currently sitting in third place in the AHL’s West Division with a 15-9-1-2 record. The Aces place atop the ECHL’s West Division at 15-8-0-0.

Goaltenders

The Blues have three goaltending prospects that have played in the minors at some point this season.

Rookie pro Marek Schwarz, St. Louis’ top-ranked goaltending prospect, has been the main man between the pipes for the Rivermen so far. He has enjoyed an excellent start to his pro career, sporting an 11-3 win-loss record with a .911 save percentage. His GAA of 2.29 is third-best in the league, and second-best amongst rookies. In only three starts has Schwarz allowed more than two goals against, which has given his team a chance to win almost every night. In five games he has held opponents to only one goal, but his first shutout has eluded him so far. In mid-December he received his first call-up to the big leagues, losing his first NHL game 3-2 versus Chicago. His performance wasn’t spectacular, but it wasn’t too bad for a first time out. He also played briefly against Colorado before being returned to Peoria. Schwarz should continue to improve as he gets more experience in the AHL throughout the season. If the Blues remain out of the playoff picture as the season goes on, new coach Andy Murray may elect to give Schwarz some more starts in the NHL.

Jason Bacashihua has seen his season split between Peoria and the NHL. While in the AHL his play has been somewhat disappointing. In eight games played, he has only recorded two wins. His save percentage is a sub-par .860, and his GAA sits at 3.78, though these numbers have been largely influenced by a pair of poor outings against division rivals Chicago and Houston early in the season. The 24-year-old Bacashihua last played with the Rivermen on Dec. 1, where he made 20 saves and posted a victory. He is currently on the Blues’ NHL roster.

Twenty-two-year-old Chris Beckford-Tseu has also seen his season split between two teams. He has played in six games with the Rivermen, and another five with Alaska in the ECHL. His play with Alaska has been nothing short of incredible. He has won all five of his starts, while only allowing four goals against in total, including two shutout performances. His save percentage is an outstanding .969 so far. Beckford-Tseu has fared reasonably in the AHL as well with an .891 save percentage and 2.57 GAA. He is on Peoria’s roster at the moment, and last played on Dec. 15 against the Iowa Stars. Unfortunately, this was not game to remember for Beckford-Tseu, as he was yanked after giving up three first-period goals.

Defensemen

The only top-20 Blues prospect playing defense in Peoria is Jeff Woywitka. Woywitka has spent the entire year in the AHL, except for five games played with the Blues. He has registered nine assists (no goals), which places him second on the Rivermen in defenseman scoring, trailing only veteran Tomas Mojzis. But Woywitka, acquired in the Chris Pronger trade with Edmonton, has been inconsistent for the most part. Since returning to Peoria from his stint with St. Louis in early December, he only has two points and has a plus/minus rating of minus-7. The 6’3 rearguard must also better use his size to his advantage like he has in the past. Peoria needs Woywitka to return to his earlier season form and lead their defense corps.

Doug Lynch, also acquired along with Woywitka, didn’t have a great start to the year, but has picked up his game in recent weeks. In the month of December he is a plus-4 with 14 PIMs. Lynch has not been counted on for his offensive abilities (just one assist in 24 games played this year), but has been fairly reliable in his own zone. The 23-year-old defender has not been afraid to drop the gloves or play physical when needed, either. Lynch doesn’t look like he will live up to past expectations, some of which saw him as a top-4 NHL defenseman, but he should continue to be a solid depth defenseman with Peoria.

Since joining the Rivermen in November, Roman Polak has been one of their top blueliners. Due to a strong training camp and injuries to St. Louis defensemen, Polak made the Blues’ NHL roster to start the season. After six games with the big club, he was shipped down to Peoria where his play has been strong, especially for a 20-year-old rookie. The Czech Republic native has played a consistent, defensively sound game, and is rounding into form nicely as he becomes accustomed to the North American professional game. He has a plus/minus rating of plus-5, along with 21 penalty minutes in 16 games in the AHL. He recently scored his first goal of the year, giving him two points on the season. A call-up back to St. Louis at some point this season is definitely a possibility.

Aaron MacKenzie, while still considered a prospect, is actually one of the more experienced defenders on the Rivermen roster. He is in his fourth year of AHL hockey, after playing in the NCAA with the University of Denver. MacKenzie is typically a defense-first style of rearguard who has a physical aspect to his game, and that is exactly what he has provided to the Rivermen through the first stretch of the season. Through 27 games, the 6’0 tall defender has three assists, 30 PIMs, and has a plus-1 rating. He has maintained his solid defensive play throughout the season, with no extended slumps. He is pointless with a plus-3 rating this month.

Big-bodied defenseman Zack FitzGerald has served as Peoria’s blue line enforcer when in action this season. The 6’1, 214-pound blueliner has racked up 38 PIMs in his 10 appearances this season. In Peoria’s rough-and-tumble season opener against Omaha, FitzGerald accumulated 17 PIMs. The 22-year-old Minnesota native has one assist and a minus-1 rating.

Patrick Wellar is the lone Blues prospect who has spent the majority of his playing time in the ECHL with Alaska. He is a big presence at 6’3, 210 pounds, and likes to throw his weight around. As can be expected, he concentrates much more on play in his own zone than trying to generate offense. He has scored three goals and added an assist so far this season, while piling up 46 PIMs, the third highest total on the Aces. He has a plus-6 rating, and has been a solid, stay-at-home defenseman for first place Alaska. He was called up to Peoria for a pair of games in October, and recorded two penalty minutes.

Forwards

St. Louis has a good blend of veteran and rookie prospects playing in the AHL this season.

Amongst Blues prospects playing in the minors, 25-year-old Jon DiSalvatore is currently the leading scorer. His six goals and 14 assists place him fourth overall on the Rivermen, with 20 points. A veteran of three AHL season previous to 2006-07, DiSalvatore has proven to be a consistent offensive producer who can score goals and set them up. He is not a liability defensively, and has been used on the power play at times. The 6’1 left winger is not overly physical, but does not get pushed around, and has 34 PIMs. He started the season off strongly, with several multi-point games in October, before enduring a 15-game drought in which he only scored one goal. But a pair of two-point games in mid-December looks to have gotten him back on track.

The Rivermen have also been able to rely on rookie right winger David Backes to put the puck in the net. So far he has managed to chock up nine goals, which places him third amongst Rivermen scorers, to go along with a pair of helpers. Backes has begun using his size (6’3, 210 pounds) a little more often, with 34 PIMs at this point. He started the season off strongly with consistent goal production through the first 20 games, but has become mired in a slump throughout December. With a minus-9 rating, he needs to improve his defensive game, but like most rookies, time and experience should aid in this process as the season wears on.

Another rookie, Michal Birner, has also performed reasonably well up to this point. Birner turned pro this year after an 85-point 2005-06 campaign with the Saginaw Spirit of the OHL. The 20-year-old left winger/center has two goals and four assists in 13 games played with Peoria. He also has two penalty minutes and is a plus-1. His season was interrupted by a wrist injury that caused him to miss all of November, but he returned strong with a goal and an assist in his first game back on Dec. 1. Birner is a good playmaker and puckhandler, and certainly has NHL potential. He probably won’t make it to St. Louis this season, save for a rash of injuries to Blues players, but now that his injury is behind him, he can settle into the flow of the professional game, and should have a solid rookie season.

Every team needs somebody to lay down the law, and in the case of the Rivermen, that player is D.J. King. The Rivermen were without his services for the first couple of weeks of the season after King made the Blues roster out of training camp. But he saw very limited ice time in the NHL and was sent back down to the AHL where he has since totaled 67 PIMs in 19 games. Standing 6’3 and weighing 230 pounds, King uses his size to punish opponents along the boards, and can easily outmuscle smaller defenders in the corners. He has chipped in two goals and four points on the score sheet. But most importantly, teammates know they are safe from abuse when big #19 is on the ice.

The Rivermen have a well-balanced centerman in 23-year-old Ryan Ramsay. He is able to put the puck in the net, set up teammates, and is responsible defensively. Even though Ramsay is only 5’11, he is not afraid to mix it up physically or drop the gloves if need be. He ranks second on the Rivermen with 49 PIMs in 21 contests. The space he can create for himself with edgy play has enabled him to score five goals and six assists for 11 points this season, and his plus-6 rating is the best on the team. Ramsay started off a little slow in the point-scoring department, but got hot just when the weather started to turn cold, with a six-game point streak around the end of November and early December. During that streak he scored the winning goal in a game against divisional foes the Iowa Stars.

A third-year pro, center Konstantin Zakharov is looking to take the next step this season. The Belarus native is not that big or physical, but has a good offensive skill set that he hopes will begin to translate into increased production. He has shown flashes of that skill this season, but overall it has been somewhat of a disappointment. He has three goals and three assists in 16 games played, and has been a scratch on several occasions. He started off with a minus-5 rating in October, but has picked up the slack and gotten himself back onto the plus side. He notched a pair of assists in a recent game against Iowa, and has been creating more scoring chances as of late, so there is still plenty of time to make 2006-07 a successful season.


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