St. Louis Blues have prospects to watch across all levels in 2013-14

By Suraj Sukumar

William Carrier - Cape Breton Screaming Eagles

Photo: Cape Breton winger William Carrier is part of a Blues CHL pool that was replenished at the 2013 NHL Draft (courtesy of Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

The St. Louis Blues have had tremendous success in finding talented prospects at all levels of hockey. Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz are two great examples of the Blues’ ability to locate talent at different in different parts of the world.

Tarasenko is one of the most offensively gifted prospects in the NHL and was drafted out of the KHL. Schwartz, a very talented two-way forward, was drafted out of the USHL before spending two years at Colorado College. While there are some holes in the Blues’ system, they continue to produce quality players for the pros and replenish the pipeline through the draft.

During this year’s draft, the Blues did not have a first round draft pick. Despite the disadvantage, they were able to come away with solid picks in Tommy Vannelli, who was drafted out of the U.S. National Team Development Program but chose to join the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers, and William Carrier of the QMJHL’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. Given the array of Blues’ prospects scattered across different levels of hockey, the following analysis will preview the most important prospects going into the 2013-14 season.

Pro

Top Pro Prospect
Vladimir Tarasenko, RW, St. Louis Blues (NHL)

After making a name for himself in the KHL, Tarasenko has slowly propelled himself into a scoring role with the St. Louis Blues. He has shown tremendous ability in his young career and if it were not for injuries last season, Tarasenko could have been among the NHL’s best rookies. Even though he returned later in the season, he never seemed to reach the same level of play.

With the summer to recover, Tarasenko will have hopefully overcome any symptoms from his injury and try to take his game to the next level in 2013-14. One concern will be Tarasenko’s play during a full 82-game schedule, where durability and health are significantly important. He has looked dynamic early in the season, scoring two goals and an assist in his first three games. Tarasenko will continue to play a top-six role with the Blues and should improve on his rookie season.

Breakout Offensive Prospect
Jaden Schwartz, LW, St. Louis Blues (NHL)

Schwartz could have just as easily found himself in the Top Prospect category. He is one of the Blues’ best prospects alongside Tarasenko, and if his dynamic early-season play is any indication, Schwartz could be in line for a major breakout.

Schwartz has started to make a name for himself in St. Louis, playing top-six minutes and showing his skills at both ends of the ice. As an RFA next summer, you can bet your bottom dollar that Schwartz will work his tail off to prove he can be an effective and skilled two-way winger in the NHL. Given the depth at forward in the Blues’ system, Schwartz playing top-six minutes is already a good sign for him, now all he has to do is seize the opportunity.

Breakout Defensive Prospect
Jani Hakanpaa, D, Chicago Wolves (AHL)

Hakanpaa is a young defenseman with ample experience. He started the last two seasons with the Espoo Blues of the Liiga and demonstrated solid defensive play. In 75 total games, he scored seven goals and 10 assists but managed a plus-eight rating as well. Last year, he joined the Peoria Rivermen mid-season and was able to play 14 games in the AHL. He scored one goal and three assists in those games, which is respectable given his age and it being his first time playing in North America.

At the junior level, Hakanpaa showed more offense to go along with his impactful defensive game. He has amazing size and a continuously improving shot. Improving his skating will be important as he becomes a more versatile player. Playing with the Chicago Wolves, Hakanpaa will be given ample opportunity to capitalize on more offensive opportunities and develop his overall game. Early in the season, he has been active in the physical game and has scored one of the Wolves’ three goals through their first two games of 2013-14.

Junior

Top Prospect
Tommy Vannelli, D, Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL)

Vannelli was drafted 47th overall with the Blues’ first pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. He is a great skater with solid offensive instincts. He hails from Minnetonka, Minnesota and was developed through high school ranks before joining the U.S. Development Program in the latter stages of 2012-13. He played 11 games in the USHL and scored one goal and one assist while managing a plus-seven rating. While the offensive numbers may not represent his skills, Vannelli was initially going to hit the NCAA ranks, but decided to pursue an opportunity with the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL.

Vannelli is already off to a hot start with three goals, four assist in his first six games, proving why it was a good decision to hit the junior level. If he can stay consistent offensively but still maintain his defensive responsibilities, Vannelli’s junior career will be a successful one. More importantly, Vannelli is currently 18 years old, and if he continues to impress with the Tigers, his junior career could also be a short one too.

Bounceback Player
William Carrier, LW, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (QMJHL)

After a very impressive sophomore campaign in the QMJHL, Carrier did not have the same success last season. In 2011-12, Carrier scored 27 goals and 70 points in 66 games. He went on to play in four playoff games, scoring three goals and three assists. Coming off such an outstanding season, big things were expected of Carrier moving forward. Sadly, during the 2012-13 campaign, Carrier suffered a high ankle sprain which forced him to miss a large chunk of games.

In the 34 games Carrier did play, he scored 16 goals and 26 assists, which would have been a great season had he not been injured in December. In addition to his offensive skills, Carrier possess good size and the willingness to use it. Skating is the biggest area in need of improvement, but the hard worker has already made improvements in this area. The Blues were happy to take a chance on the young winger and he seems poised to return to his previous form. If he can stay healthy and continue to put up the points, Carrier could set career highs in all offensive categories in 2013-14. Through his first eight games in 2013-14, Carrier has one goal and five assists.

Offensive Breakout
Zach Pochiro, LW, Prince George Cougars (WHL)

Pochiro is by no means considered a primetime goal-scorer or playmaker. However, during his rookie season, Pochiro was able to impress in all facets of the game. He plays a very gritty game but tries to help in the offensive zone as much as he can. He is not the most disciplined player, but he works hard and has become a major part of the Prince George Cougars.

In 65 games as a rookie, Pochiro scored 15 goals and 39 points to go with 105 penalty minutes. He has a solid all-around game and will always have the gritty side to his game, but he will have to work hard to provide some points. At the same time, he needs to stay out of the box if he hopes to be more effective in the offensive zone. He has shown offensive instincts in the past, so if he can stay disciplined and improve his goal scoring ability, Pochiro could see an increase in point production this season. Early returns are promising with three goals, four assists through his first seven games.

Amateur

Top Amateur Prospect
Jordan Schmaltz, D, University of North Dakota (NCHC)

Schmaltz ended a great USHL career in 2011-12, scoring 35 points in his 46 games with Green Bay. He entered the University of North Dakota program in 2012-13 and had a solid freshman campaign. While it takes longer for defensemen to develop, Schmaltz was still able to contribute three goals and nine assists.

As the 2013-14 season approaches, Schmaltz remains a lock for a prominent role in the North Dakota lineup. He is still extremely raw and is far from NHL-ready. However, Schmaltz has incredible offensive instincts and was one of the best offensive-minded defensemen in the 2012 NHL draft. Heading into his sophomore year, Schmaltz will likely have more opportunity to let his offensive gifts emerge while also finding his all-around game. At just 20 years old, Schmaltz has significant time to ready himself for the pros.

Offensive Breakout
Max Gardiner, C, Penn State University Nittany Lions (Big Ten) 

Gardiner has been a bright surprise in the Blues pipeline. He is one of the few centers to be performing well at the moment, and is only entering his third season of college hockey. In his first year with Penn State in 2012-13, Gardiner had 18 assists and 21 points in 23 games. Known primarily for his playmaking ability, Gardiner proved he can be a major part of the offense. He needs to become a better goal scorer and improve his two-way game, but will have plenty of time to do so. Going into 2013-14, Gardiner should see much added responsibility and should respond in a major way.

In the big picture, Gardiner represents a lot for the Blues. At the NHL level, they have high-end talent at the center position, but the prospect pool is shallow down the middle. Gardiner represents one of the few offensively-minded prospects at the center position and the Blues will be counting on him to make a successful jump when he is ready. Gardiner will be counted on for offense in 2013-14 as the Nittany Lions join the new Big Ten hockey conference. 

Bounceback Prospect
Sam Kurker, RW, Boston University Terriers (Hockey East)

In terms of numbers, Kurker had a very difficult freshman year. Though statistics are not everything, Kurker is regarded as a solid power forward with some offensive upside. In 35 games, Kurker managed just three goals and two assists as a freshman. However, the first year jump to the collegiate level seems to be a learning curve for most, and Kurker will surely improve on his first year numbers.

Going into the 2013-14 season, Kurker must prove he can play at both ends of the ice and start putting up some points. As a sophomore, Kurker will be much more comfortable on the ice and could see added responsibility in the process. Given his age, he has plenty of time to develop his offensive skills at the NCAA level, while trying to improve his defensive game as well.

Europe

Top European Prospect
Niklas Lundstrom, G, Sodertalje SK (Allsvenskan)

Even though the Blues’ prospects in the European system are running thin, Lundstrom is a very promising goaltending prospect. Having already played in the Swedish Hockey League as a teen, Lundstrom has slowly become a very reliable netminder. He also appeared in four games for the Swedish team at the World Juniors and helped them win a silver medal.

Going into the 2013-14 season, Lundstrom has garnered a full-time role with Sodertalje SK in Sweden’s second-tier Allsvenskan and will be counted on to provide consistency between the pipes. As a fifth round pick, Lundstrom currently seems like a steal. However, transitioning his game from Europe will be the biggest concern for the Blues. Nevertheless, the Blues have a plethora of players to choose from currently in North America, giving Lundstrom ample time to make a name for himself in Sweden.

Unsigned for 2014-15
Santeri Saari, D, Jokerit Helsinki (Liiga)

Saari is a young talent with some great experience already under his belt. He has spent most of his time in the Jokerit system, playing at all levels of their organization. He got his first taste of the men’s league last season for just two games, and failed to record any points. In addition, at just 18 years old, Saari has represented Finland on the international stage for the last four years. Playing for the Jokerit U20 team for most of last season, Saari scored five goals and 23 points in 46 games.

Heading into the 2013-14 season, Saari will again likely split time between Jokerit J20 and Kiekko-Vantaa of Finland’s second tier league. He is unsigned for the next season, so this will have to be a big year for Saari if he hopes to maintain his role with Jokerit or get his chance with the Blues.

Bounceback Player
Petteri Lindbohm, D, Assat Pori (Liiga)

Lindbohm was a sixth round pick and has not produced very much while playing in Europe. However, he is a big body and can really play in physical situations. His offensive talents are not bad, but he needs to grow tremendously before he can consistently deliver in that department. He is extremely raw but has demonstrated good poise with and without the puck. He has played well at other levels of Finnish hockey and just needs to become more reliable in the Liiga. He was also the captain of the 2013 World Junior Championship team and was named one of the team’s top three players by the coaches.

This season, Lindbohm is currently on loan and playing with Assat Pori of the Liiga. Last season, he mustered just four assists in 35 games played with the Finnish powerhouse Jokerit Helsinki. This season, Lindbohm should get more ice time and play a much larger role for his team. If he can improve his offensive game while getting more consistent and effective in his own zone, he will have the opportunity to become a much better player by the end of the season.