Blues AHL/ECHL prospects season review

By Kyle McMahon

The Blues were affiliated with the Peoria Rivermen of the AHL and the Alaska Aces of the ECHL in 2006-07.

The 2006-07 season was fairly disappointing for the Rivermen, their first under the direction of new head coach Dave Baseggio. Expected to be one of the better teams in the AHL, Peoria underachieved in missing the playoffs, though some solid showings by several Blues prospects can provide at little bit of consolation. The Aces, on the other hand, were one of the top teams in the ECHL and advanced to the conference final.

Forwards

The Peoria Rivermen’s top-scoring Blues prospect was Charles Linglet, who spent the entire year in the AHL. In 73 games, he banged home 31 goals, and totaled 60 points.

His goal total was the second highest on the team, and ranked 16th overall in the entire league. Linglet, who only became an eligible prospect after the Blues signed him to a two-way contract earlier in the year, was also one of the Rivermen’s most responsible forwards defensively. He managed a plus-7 rating on a squad with many forwards well into the minus side of the stat. He was also a danger on the power play, scoring 11 goals with the man advantage. Linglet’s production was spread quite consistently over the course of the campaign. He faded a little in the final stretch of the season, but enjoyed a career night against Houston in April, as he struck for five points.

Just a couple of years ago, when he was grinding it out in the ECHL, the NHL seemed very unlikely for Linglet. But now it appears as though he could be a late bloomer (he’ll be 25 years old in June) with a serious shot at making it to the big show.

Another veteran prospect, left winger Jon DiSalvatore, was also one of the Rivermen’s top producers.

2006-07 was DiSalvatore’s third year in the Blues’ farm system, after originally being property of the San Jose Sharks. He didn’t quite match last season’s 67 points, but still had a solid year. DiSalvatore scored 21 times and added 39 assists in 76 games played. He was frequently used on special teams, and managed six power play markers, as well as a pair of short-handed goals. The native of Bangor, Maine, started off a little slow, with only four goals at Christmas time. But he maintained his focus, and broke through in the latter portion of the season.

The Rivermen’s schedule was bloated in March, with a whopping 18 games. DiSalvatore averaged exactly a point per game in that stretch, scoring six goals and 12 assists. He had several multiple-point games as well, though he was strangely a minus-8 throughout the scoring streak.

DiSalvatore played five NHL games in 2005-06, but wasn’t recalled for any this season. Given his age, he will probably be a minor leaguer for most of his career. 

Center Yan Stastny was acquired from the Boston Bruins in mid-January, and he became a dependable point-producer with the Rivermen after his arrival.

His Peoria career didn’t begin as well as Stastny would have hoped. He was out of sorts in his first game with his new team, on the ice for all four goals against in a 4-2 loss to Rochester. But he settled in nicely with a two-goal game a few nights later, and became one of the Rivermen’s top forwards from then on. He played 39 games in total with Peoria, finishing off the year with 11 goals and 28 points.

Stastny, the son of Hall of Famer Peter Stastny (who coincidentally finished off his playing career with the Blues), is a veteran as far as prospects are concerned. He played two seasons at Notre Dame in the NCAA, and then played two years in Germany before returning to North America. He has played 41 NHL games with the Bruins and Oilers, including 21 with Boston early in 2006-07.

Rookie pro Michal Birner’s season was a little trying at times, but at year’s end it appears as though he handled the transition to the pro ranks. The Czech Republic native played junior hockey in the OHL, so 2006-07 was not his first taste of the North American game.

Birner was set back with an injured wrist just a few games into the season, causing him to miss over a month, so it was understandable that he didn’t start to pick up his play until after Christmas. Over the last half of the season, Birner’s offensive production was very consistent for a rookie. He was used on both the power play and penalty kill, and four of his 11 goals came on special teams. He assisted on 17 scores as well, giving him 28 points in 66 games, as he finished the year as Peoria’s top rookie scorer.

With a minus-14 rating, Birner’s defensive play will need to improve before he has a serious chance at making the NHL roster, but that should come naturally as he gains more professional experience.  

Third-year pro Ryan Ramsay might have been the most complete forward on the Rivermen this season.

The 24-year-old center ranked sixth in team scoring, led the club in plus/minus with a plus-16 rating, and also finished atop the penalty minute category in Peoria, with 159. He improved his statistical totals over last season’s in basically every category.

In 58 games, Ramsay scored 14 goals and 23 assists, giving him 37 points on the year. These numbers would all be higher as well, had Ramsay not missed a pair of three-week stretches during the season with injuries. He recorded a hat trick in February, picking up all three of his teams goals in a 4-3 loss to Grand Rapids.

When he wasn’t scoring, Ramsay was often getting involved physically, whether it was by dropping the gloves, or simply playing abrasive on the ice. With seven points in his final seven games of the season, Ramsay was one of Peoria’s best players in their push for the playoffs.

Ramsay could certainly qualify as a “coach’s player”, so it seems inevitable that he will eventually get a look in the NHL. 

Right winger Ryan MacMurchy saw his season split between Peoria and Alaska.

The University of Wisconsin graduate played 24 games in the AHL, scoring four goals and adding an assist. The first-year pro endured a lengthy slump throughout most of the year, going 17 games without a point. During this stretch he had two main stints in the ECHL, where he fared better statistically. In 18 games with the Aces, he scored four goals and six assists. The Regina, Saskatchewan product tended to strike in bunches, with three multiple-point games with Alaska.

MacMurchy finally snapped his AHL slump in the final two weeks of the season, sniping a pair of goals in an 8-2 Rivermen thrashing of the Houston Aeros. At the conclusion of the Rivermen’s season, he was returned to Alaska for their playoff drive. In 15 playoff games, MacMurchy scored four times, and recorded 63 PIM, which was more than he had in the whole regular season. 

The Blues’ top NHL rookie in 2006-07, David Backes, began the season in Peoria. He was a common scoring threat, with nine tallies by the end of November. The 23-year-old was especially potent on the power play, scoring seven times with the man advantage. He slumped in December, but that didn’t deter Andy Murray, who called him up to St. Louis shortly after he was hired as head coach. Backes spent the remainder of the NHL schedule with St. Louis. He began slowly, but by the end of the season the NCAA graduate was one of the Blues’ better forwards.

When St. Louis’ campaign ended, Backes returned to Peoria for four more games. He scored a goal and an assist, but it wasn’t enough to get the Rivermen into the playoffs. There’s a chance that those will be his final AHL games, as he has already begun to establish himself nicely in the NHL.

D.J. King was Peoria’s top enforcer while in the line-up this season. The bruising winger was always prepared to go up against another team’s tough guy, and even chipped some goals from time to time.

King bounced around between Peoria and St. Louis quite a bit in 2006-07. He totaled 38 games with the Rivermen, popping five goals and adding four helpers. But his main job was to play physical and police the ice for Peoria’s skill players. He achieved this with 102 PIM, which included numerous fighting majors.

Seeing that the former Western Leaguer was willing to pay his dues and slug it out in the minors, the Blues began to use King for NHL duty increasingly often as the season progressed. He spent most of February and all of March in St. Louis, before finishing off the year back in Peoria. During this brief stretch he helped the Rivermen’s cause by scoring a pair of goals in a crucial late-season win over Omaha.

Konstantin Zakharov played in Peoria until mid-February, at which point he abruptly left the team to return to his native Belarus.

The 22-year-old center only had nine points in 27 games at the end of January, but got hot in February, with two goals and three assists in a four game stretch. But just as he was getting on a roll, Zakharov pulled up stakes and headed back to Minsk. It has been suggested that the reason he did this is to play with a team coached by his father that will be joining the Russian league next year.

Don’t count on seeing Zakharov in a Rivermen uniform again any time soon. The Blues are likely at an end with him, seeing this is the second time he has returned to Europe in mid-season.

Defensemen

Defenseman Jeff Woywitka finally had the break-out season he was looking for.

A highly-rated prospect at one time, Woywitka’s stock began to slip as he spent more and more time in the minors and less in the NHL. This season he began the year in Peoria again, spending the majority of the first half of the year there. He was called up to St. Louis for two weeks in November, and initially struggled when he was returned to the farm. But the 23-year-old turned his game around and headed back up to the NHL for good at the end of January. With 18 assists, Woywitka was a top blue line point producer on the farm. He had just 20 PIM in 41 games, a sign that he is becoming a better positional player, though not as physical as he used to be.

Woywitka will look to build on his late-year NHL success next season, and ensure that this is the last time he is included in a minor-league wrap-up.

Another prospect that was also on a lot of scouts’ radar in the past, Doug Lynch, did not fare so well this season. In fact, since coming into the St. Louis system from Edmonton two years ago, Lynch has struggled to find his form.

He played 59 games in the AHL this year, managing just one goal and two assists. Scoring stats aren’t necessarily a good barometer to judge defensemen by, but consider that Lynch had 36 points in the AHL in 2003-04, his first pro season. At minus-10, he was far from formidable in his own zone. He had 60 penalty minutes, which included a few fights. Lynch has a physical edge to his game, and showed flashes of it this year, but overall his performance was a little disappointing.

Lynch is a restricted free agent heading into the summer. With the probable arrival of several new blue line recruits, coupled with the fact that he no longer looks like a future NHL player, it seems doubtful that he will be re-signed by the club.

Rookie pro Roman Polak was arguably Peoria’s best defenseman in 2006-07. The 21-year-old arrived on the farm in November, after he surprisingly found a place on the Blues’ NHL roster at the end of training camp.

The hard-hitting Czech blueliner played a sound defensive game with the Rivermen, while also making casual appearances on the score-sheet. He got on a roll in December with eight points in an eight game span. He swooned slightly to begin the 2007 calendar year, but continued to go about his business, and eventually made it back up to St. Louis.

Polak’s gritty brand of play made things unpleasant for onrushing forwards all season. He closed out the year with 66 PIM in 53 AHL games, complimented by four goals and eight assists. Three of his goals came on the power play, and he finished with a respectable plus-1 rating.

Polak will be in the running for a roster spot in St. Louis next season, but if the Blues decide to send him back to the minors, it will be Peoria’s gain.

Minor league veteran Aaron MacKenzie has provided his team with a reliable depth defenseman for four seasons, and 2006-07 was no different.

MacKenzie takes care of his own zone before worrying about offense, and plays his opponents tough. In 67 games this year, he had a goal and six assists. His lone goal of the season came early in a February game versus Grand Rapids, and started the Rivermen on their way to a 7-3 victory. MacKenzie spent 46 minutes in the penalty box this year, a figure much lower than in the past. With several other Rivermen players capable of dropping the gloves, the 6’0 tall defender hasn’t been required to do so as much as before.

It doesn’t look like MacKenzie will ever see any significant time in the NHL, but he should continue to be a respectable depth player in the minors.

Defenseman Zack FitzGerald, an American who played in the WHL with Seattle, split his second pro season between the AHL and the ECHL.

FitzGerald played 29 games with the Rivermen this season, picking up two assists, amassing 86 PIM, and recording a plus-2 rating. A healthy scratch at times, the Rivermen inserted him into the line-up when they felt some muscle was necessary. The 6’1, 214 pound blueliner responded by dropping the gloves on several occasions, though he did have the tendency to take undisciplined aggression penalties.

FitzGerald played 10 regular season games with Alaska, recording 48 PIM and an assist. He was also with them for the playoffs, where he continued to play rough with 82 PIM, but was surprisingly productive offensively. He scored two goals and totaled five points in 14 post-season matches.     

The only defenseman who spent a significant amount of time in Alaska was Patrick Wellar.

The 23-year-old, who played his third professional season, was in the Aces’ line-up 53 times. He began the season in Peoria, playing two games with the Rivermen in October, before being sent down to the ECHL. He provided the Aces with a rugged, defensive-mined game, while also chipping in seven goals and 14 points. His plus-17 rating was one of the best on his team.

Wellar’s game changed little while up in the AHL. After being recalled to Peoria for the month of March, he finished his AHL season with one assist in 21 games and a minus-2 rating.  

Goaltenders

The goaltending duties in Peoria were split between Marek Schwarz and Chris Beckford-Tseu, who both appear to have a bright future within the organization, as well as veteran Jason Bacashihua.

For the most part, Schwarz excelled during his first professional season in North America. The 2004 first-round draft pick came out of the gate flying, with 12 wins in his first 16 games. He received a brief call-up to St. Louis in December, and earned his first NHL start against Chicago, a game in which he provided a fair performance in a 3-2 defeat. After being sent back to the farm, Schwarz continued to play well, even though he cooled off slightly from his opening pace.

Schwarz’s strong play in the first half of the year earned him a spot in the mid-season AHL all-star game. He played well in the game, allowing only one goal against in his period of play. 

In February, Schwarz was sidelined with a groin injury that would keep him out until early March. He achieved mixed results after his return, with four wins and five losses, while performing solidly in some games and not so well in others.

Schwarz finished the season with a 19-13 win/loss record. He had a GAA of 2.76 and a save percentage of .899. His only shutout of the campaign came against Milwaukee, a game that required a shootout to determine a victor.

Schwarz could be the full-time starter in Peoria next season, depending on what the Blues decide to do with their surplus of goaltenders.

Through he doesn’t always get the attention he warrants, Beckford-Tseu has quietly established himself as a solid goaltending prospect with his consistently strong performances.

Beckford-Tseu spent most of the year in the AHL, but due to difficulties in finding playing time for all of their netminders, the Blues had him down in Alaska sporadically as well. The 22-year-old stopper dominated the ECHL in 2005-06, and succeeded in doing so again this year. He won all seven games he played, with an amazing .950 save percentage and 1.27 GAA.

Beckford-Tseu could hardly have been expected to replicate that success in the AHL, but his play was decent nonetheless. He finished with a 12-11-4 record, and led Rivermen goaltenders with a 2.72 GAA and a .900 save percentage. Beckford-Tseu received the majority of starts for Peoria in March. This gave him valuable experience, but also showed that he might not be ready to be an AHL starter quite yet. He allowed three or more goals in 10 of 14 games over this period of time, but still kept his save percentage above .890.  

Beckford-Tseu has clearly developed past the point that he should be spending any time at all in the ECHL. He has given the Blues reason to allow him to compete for a starting job in Peoria next season.

Jason Bacashihua’s strong end to the 2005-06 season, where he was often one of the best players on the ice in St. Louis, had many people feeling he would be ready to supplant oft-injured Curtis Sanford as the backup with the Blues in 2006-07. But Bacashihua struggled early on and saw himself demoted to the minors in October.

His play in the AHL wasn’t exactly of the caliber the Rivermen were hoping to be provided with. He suffered several unspectacular outings early on, and was flip-flopping between Peoria and the NHL for much of the season. In February, he was given a number of consecutive starts, and his play began to pick up. This earned him promotion back to St. Louis until the Blues finished their season.

He was back on the farm in April, and nearly guided the Rivermen into the playoffs in the final week of the AHL season. They ultimately came up short, but Bacashihua managed to at least partly salvage his season, posting a .928 save percentage and 1.68 GAA in his final four starts. His final stat line read 5-10-4, with a GAA of 2.90 and a save percentage of .885. 

He also earned an invitation to suit up with Team USA at the World Championship in Moscow in the spring. He backed up John Grahame, playing one period and allowing one goal against.  

Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.