Blues Top 20 prospects, Fall 2007

By Kyle McMahon

There are several new additions to St. Louis’ Top 20, mainly due to a plethora of high draft picks back at the draft in June. The Blues’ prospect pool, which is full of skilled forwards, remains one of the best in hockey. They also boast a healthy supply of goaltenders, as well as a potential franchise player in defenseman Erik Johnson.

Top 20 at a Glance

1. Erik Johnson
2. T.J. Oshie
3. Marek Schwarz
4. Patrik Berglund
5. Lars Eller
6. Hannu Toivonen
7. David Backes
8. David Perron
9. Ian Cole
10. Tomas Kana
11. Jay Barriball
12. Ben Bishop
13. Simon Hjalmarsson
14. Roman Polak
15. Michal Birner
16. Nikolai Lemtyugov
17. Jonas Junland
18. Charles Linglet
19. Aaron Palushaj
20. Cade Fairchild

1. Erik Johnson, D, 9.0 B

Drafted: 1st Overall, 2006 draft

The 2007-08 season will see the much-anticipated professional debut of defenseman Erik Johnson, quite likely the best prospect the Blues have ever had.

The 2006 first overall pick decided to make the jump into the NHL after one season in the NCAA with Minnesota. That one season ended in disappointment for Johnson and the Golden Gophers, as they failed to capture the national championship that many were predicting, but it was certainly successful for Johnson from a developmental standpoint.

The Minnesota native had the good fortune of playing on a blue line with other skilled veterans, helping to ease the pressure that would normally follow a prospect of Johnson’s standing. He responded with worthy defensive play and offensive production, typical of a strong two-way defender. Johnson totaled 24 points in 41 games, including four goals, three of which came on the power play. Technically sound with a physical edge, Johnson accumulated 50 penalty minutes.

Johnson has the ability to become a franchise player in the future; the important thing will be to allow him the time to round out his game. Defensemen generally take longer to make an impact than forwards, and with a solid defense corps already in place, there are no signs that the Blues will try to rush his progress. Johnson’s game has never been about making flashy plays or fancy moves, so expect him to simply stay the course and try to provide consistent, steady play in 2007-08. Nonetheless, he will be one of the early favorites for rookie of the year heading into the new season. 

2. T.J. Oshie, C, 8.0 B

Drafted: 24th Overall, 2005 draft

There was speculation abound that T.J. Oshie, like Johnson, would leave the college ranks to play in the NHL. However, Oshie decided to return to North Dakota for another year.

With a pair of impressive seasons already to his credit, there’s no reason for Oshie not to be one of the NCAA’s premier players in 2007-08. His stickhandling and sniper’s touch make him a threat to score whenever he’s got the puck, and his playmaking ability is also strong.

Big things were expected in 2006-07, especially after he led all NCAA freshmen in goals in 2005-06. But a wrist injury nagged Oshie throughout much of the early portion of the season, meaning he didn’t really find his game until the second half of the schedule. A great run of production then enabled him to finish off the year with 52 points in 43 games, a total that bested the previous season’s 45 points.

A third year of college means that Oshie should be close to NHL ready by the time he decides to turn pro, whenever that may be. He projects to be a playmaking pivot, capable of holding down a spot as the Blues’ No. 1 center, perhaps the one to inherit the torch from aging veteran Doug Weight.   

3. Marek Schwarz, G, 8.0 C

Drafted: 17th Overall, 2004 draft

Marek Schwarz, coming off a respectable 2006-07 season, maintains his spot as the Blues’ top prospect goaltender. The native of the Czech Republic got his first taste of North American pro (he previously played junior in the WHL, however) with the Peoria Rivermen of the AHL, the Blues’ top minor-league affiliate. The rookie debuted strongly, providing top-notch goalkeeping in early months of the season. When the injury bug struck St. Louis, they didn’t hesitate to recall the youngster. He made one start, which ended in a 3-2 loss, but his play wasn’t too bad. He returned to Peoria afterwards and picked up where he left off, earning the privilege of playing in the league all-star game. After missing some time due to a groin injury, Schwarz finished out the season with a 19-13 record, a 2.76 GAA, .899 save percentage, and one shutout.

Another season with the Rivermen seems probable for Schwarz at this point. It’s not unfathomable that he could earn a spot as the backup in St. Louis, but newly-acquired prospect Hannu Toivonen, two years Schwarz’s senior, will likely have the inside track. Last season was a good rebound year for Schwarz after playing only 15 games in 2005-06, and he seems on track to be the organization’s goaltender of the future.    

4. Patrik Berglund, C, 7.5 B

Drafted: 25th Overall, 2006 draft

A former first-round pick, Patrik Berglund remains St. Louis’ highest-rated prospect playing in Europe. The Swedish centerman stands tall at 6’4, which gives him a lengthy reach, and makes it difficult for opponents to separate him from the puck. He excels at the offensive aspects of the game, possessing a scorer’s touch, as well as good vision and passing ability. Berglund’s skating isn’t top-notch, but naturally he’s improving this, along with his defensive play.

Berglund spent 2006-07 in the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second-best professional league. His performance was very encouraging, as he amassed 21 goals and 48 points in only 35 games, making him one of the league’s top producers.

The Blues have gotten Berglund’s name on a contract, and he expects to be in attendance at training camp in the fall. Based strictly on his offensive skill, Berglund could probably contribute in a scoring or power play role, but as a whole, his game is probably not complete enough for him to play in the NHL yet. This makes a return to Swedish club Vasteras a likely possibility. As he continues to develop, Berglund projects to become a No. 1 or 2 scoring center in the NHL.   

5. Lars Eller, LW/C, 7.5 B

Drafted: 13th Overall, 2007

St. Louis’ top 2007 draft pick, Danish-born forward Lars Eller, makes his debut at No. 5 on the list. Eller differs from most other top prospects his age in the sense that he was not drafted entirely based on the possibility of future scoring exploits. The 18-year-old plays a much more complete game than you would expect from somebody his age. He is a superb playmaker with decent scoring ability, and his strong skating and hockey sense make him capable in his own zone.

Eller has a knack for finding open teammates with his crisp passes, as his high assist total indicates. He recorded 37 in 39 games this season, playing with Vastra Frolunda in the Swedish junior league. He also buried 18 goals, and was a contributor on special teams as well, helping his team win the league championship. 

Eller is targeted to become a prototypical second liner, whether playing center or on the wing. His strong two-way game should make him ideal for the role a few years down the road once as he grows more mature. He will likely remain in Europe for another couple of seasons, and is expected to move from the junior ranks onto the professional squad.  

6. Hannu Toivonen, G, 8.0 C

Drafted: 29th Overall, 2002 (acquired in trade with Boston, 2007)

An unexpected trade saw the Blues acquire 23-year-old goaltender Hannu Toivonen from the Boston Bruins in exchange for fellow prospect Carl Soderberg. The Finnish netminder practices a butterfly style of goaltending, which is bolstered by his quickness and athleticism.

Toivonen will come to St. Louis in hopes that a change in scenery will get his career back on track. He struggled through much of the 2006-07 season, a year that many were predicting would be a breakout campaign. In 18 appearances with Boston, Toivonen managed just three victories versus nine defeats. He was also left sporting a poor 4.23 GAA along with a .875 save percentage. Thanks to his lackluster play, he found himself demoted the Providence Bruins of the AHL at times. While in the minors he provided better goaltending, with a .909 save percentage.

By trading for him, the Blues appear to think that Toivonen’s 2006-07 season was just a hiccup. He was troubled by an ankle injury that sidelined him from January of 2006 until training camp, so this may be one of the reasons he wasn’t up to par last season. It seems probable that the job of backup goaltender in St. Louis is Toivonen’s to lose. A strong training camp and a return to previous form could allow him to push starter Manny Legace for playing time. Most believe that he still has the potential to be a capable NHL starter one day. 
     

7. David Backes, RW, 7.0 B

Drafted: 62nd Overall, 2003

Two years ago, forward David Backes could have been described as a dark-horse prospect. But after a highly successful 2006-07 season, this should no longer be the case.

Backes, who combines size, strength, and scoring touch, began the season with Peoria. He seemed unable to build on the momentum generated at the end of the 2005-06 campaign (10 points in 12 AHL games after graduating from Minnesota State – Mankato), with only 13 points in 31 games. But after the Blues hired Andy Murray as their new head coach, the team’s fortune began to turn for the better, and Backes’ performance followed suit. He was called up to the NHL in time to play 49 games, finishing off the season with 10 goals and 13 assists to his credit. As is reasonable to expect, Backes’ play continually improved right through to the end of the season, and he was one of St. Louis’ more dependable offensive threats by March.

Backes is capable of playing center as well as the wing, which is where he was slotted while with the Blues. Though his average skating might prevent him from becoming a full-time first-liner, he looks well on his way to fulfilling his potential as a gritty, second-line scorer. His passing ability and usefulness along the boards and in the corners should make him an asset for years to come.

8. David Perron, LW, 8.0 D

Drafted: 26th Overall, 2007

David Perron made a stunning rise through the prospect ranks in the 2006-07 season. After going unselected at the 2006 draft, Perron didn’t even have to wait for round two to hear his name called this past June.

With three first round choices, and an already solid supply of prospects in the system, the Blues afforded themselves a gamble at the draft table, which they executed in the form of Perron. The brash youngster has plenty of talent, especially in the scoring department. He sniped 39 goals in 2006-07, playing with league champion Lewiston of the QMJHL. Perron is not afraid to take a risk to create a scoring chance, even if that means he could be vulnerable defensively. They key component of his game is his stickhandling wizardry, which he frequently uses to work his way past defenders. When he gets opponents chasing him, he is able to dish off the puck to open teammates thanks to his good on-ice vision.

Perron has stated that it will be his goal to make the Blues roster out of training camp this year. Blues coach Andy Murray often expects his players to be responsible in all facets of the game, however, so it would seem that another year in junior to work on improving weaknesses in his overall game is in the cards for the 19-year-old. If he can make the necessary improvements and continue to score at a high pace, he should become a top-six forward in the NHL one day.   

9. Ian Cole, D, 7.5 C

Drafted: 18th Overall, 2007

Recently drafted blueliner Ian Cole is the Blues’ top defensive prospect after Erik Johnson. A product of the U.S. National Team Development Program, Cole is typically a defense-first style of player, though he does put up points from time to time as well. Cole is a sturdy 6’1, 211 pounds, and likes to throw his weight around. Along with his physicality, Cole is a technically sound defender, and is known for his proficiency in initiating break-out plays in his own zone.

Cole played with the USNTDP under-18 team in 2006-07, tallying 20 points in 49 games. He displayed himself as a strong defensive presence, and saw time on the power play, where he scored two of his four goals. Cole’s gritty style also earned him 57 minutes in the sin bin.

The young American will soon begin his NCAA career with Notre Dame. Down the road, it is hoped Cole will become a solid shutdown defenseman in the NHL. But at the time being it looks like he’ll probably need at least a couple of seasons in the college system to mature and refine his game.       

10. Tomas Kana, LW, 7.0 C

Drafted: 31st Overall, 2006

A high second round draft choice two summers ago, Czech forward Tomas Kana has gone a little under the radar thus far, but should gain more notice now that he has signed to play in North America.

Kana ended up spending the entire 2006-07 season with Vitkovice in the Extraliga, the Czech Republic’s top professional league. There was talk that he may come over the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack, but this never came to fruition. At gritty, two-way forward, Kana played 44 games, notching nine goals and adding seven assists, in addition to 54 PIM. He was given playing time on the penalty kill as well, a testament to his well-rounded game.

Training camp and the beginning of the season, which will probably see Kana in Peoria, should give a good indication of how far along he is in his development. Kana’s playing style and defensive awareness mean that he projects to become a two-way second or third liner in the future.

11. Jay Barriball, C, 7.0 C

Drafted: 203rd Overall, 2006 (acquired in trade with San Jose, 2007)

Jay Barriball’s 5’9, 155 pound frame may have caused some teams to lose interest in him, but the Blues were not one of them, picking him up in a trade deadline deal with the Sharks.

As can be inferred, Barriball is not a going to be laying big hits on opponents. His game is geared towards his offensive attributes, which include strong skating and footwork. His smallish stature gives him agility when working against bigger defensemen, and he also possesses good hockey sense. Barriball is considered a hard worker who will spend hours at the rink practicing.

In 44 games at the University of Minnesota, the freshman recorded 20 goals and 23 assists. His 43-points led the Golden Gophers in scoring, and Barriball should only continue to improve in future NCAA seasons. He will probably need to pack on a little muscle to one day withstand the tough checking of the NHL, but Barriball’s offensive talents will at least give him a chance at becoming a top-six forward one day.  

12. Ben Bishop, G, 7.0 C

Drafted: 85th Overall, 2005

Another collegiate, the University of Maine’s Ben Bishop, provides prospect depth in the goaltending pipeline. Bishop, a native of St. Louis, completed his second successful NCAA season in 2006-07. The lanky goaltender has gotten used to winning, having compiled a 42-17-4 record over the course of two campaigns. This past season saw him post three shutouts, while achieving a 2.14 GAA and .923 save percentage.

Standing at around six and half feet tall, Bishop takes plenty of space in the goal, giving opposing forwards little to shoot at. But despite his size, he is surprisingly agile, using his athleticism to make quick saves and move around the crease.

Bishop will return to Maine for 2007-08. With the surplus of goaltenders in the Blues’ minor league system, there’s no need to sign Bishop to a pro contract right away, though he can’t play in the NCAA forever. Based on his excellent progress thus far, it can be expected that the Blues will find room for him at the professional level when the time comes.  

13. Simon Hjalmarsson, RW, 7.0 C

Drafted: 39th Overall, 2007

Simon Hjalmarsson was one of the top-ranked Europeans at the 2007 draft, and the Blues scooped him up in the second round.

The Swedish winger is an offensive dynamo, combining superb speed with great passing and shooting. This led to him lighting up the junior league in Sweden this past season, putting up totals of 31 goals and 54 points in 41 games played. He is noted for his hard work and on-ice intensity (91 penalty minutes). Hjalmarsson’s abilities are not strictly limited to the score sheet either; he is an able penalty killer and capable in his own zone.

Hjalmarsson is still a long way away from the NHL. At 5’11, 169 pounds, he needs to improve his strength, and at only18 years old, he still may have some growing to do. He will continue to play in Sweden in the near future, but in a few years he could become a second-line scorer in the NHL.   

14. Roman Polak, D, 6.5 B

Drafted: 180th Overall, 2004

Defenseman Roman Polak is the only Top 20 prospect at his position who has seen time in the NHL. Polak and his rough-and-tumble play spent 19 games in St. Louis in 2006-07. He made the team to begin the season, but was sent down to the AHL after a few games in which he was used sparingly. While down on the farm, he quickly became Peoria’s top defensive blueliner. Polak has good positioning, and is adept at throwing hits to knock opposing forwards off the puck. His strength and balance make it difficult to outmuscle him down low or along the boards. In total, he played 53 games with the Rivermen, scoring 12 points and adding 66 penalty minutes.

In March, Polak was recalled to St. Louis, where he stayed until the end of the Blues season. He continued to play physical, recording 40 hits in 19 games, and received more ice time as well, a sign that his play was steadily improving.

Polak will be in the running for a roster spot during training camp this season. Over the long haul, it looks like he will become a steady depth defenseman in the NHL.   

15. Michal Birner, LW, 7.0 C

Drafted: 116th Overall, 2004

Forward Michal Birner faired respectably in his first AHL season. A prolific scorer in the OHL, Birner didn’t quite light it up in the same manner with Peoria, but he improved increasingly throughout the campaign. An injured wrist had him on the shelf for over a month early in the season, but he began to hit his stride once he was healthy and back in game shape. By the end of the year, the Czech native was Peoria’s top rookie scorer, with 11 goals and 28 points to his credit.

Birner’s talents lay mainly in his skating and puckhandling abilities. He has a decent shot, and makes crisp passes as well. Birner is not overly big, but is more than capable of driving hard to the net, something he needs to do a little more often. His play in the defensive zone must continue to improve as well.

Birner, aged 21, will probably be back in Peoria in 2007-08, but should receive consideration for recall if he picks up where he left off last season.

16. Nikolai Lemtyugov, RW, 7.0 C

Drafted: 219th Overall, 2005

The Blues have had a poor success rate in bringing Russian prospects over to North America, but Nikolai Lemtyugov is one of the exceptions.

The 21-year-old was signed to an NHL deal, and will be in training camp in the fall. He will bring a solid offensive skill set to the table, including a good skating stride as well as impressive shooting velocity. Lemtyugov doesn’t usually initiate contact, but he doesn’t mind working in traffic. He’s a hard working player, and shows responsibility defensively.

The upcoming season will be Lemtyugov’s first in North America after playing in Russia for several years. In 52 games with Severstal in 2006-07, he managed 11 goals and 19 points. It isn’t out of the question that he could crack the Blues roster out of training camp, but odds are he will begin the season in the AHL. However, a call-up at some point in the year is certainly a possibility. It is hoped that Lemtyugov may eventually become a scoring-line winger in St. Louis.  

17. Jonas Junland, D, 6.5 C

Drafted: 64th Overall, 2006

Swedish defender Jonas Junland enjoyed a solid rookie season in the Swedish Elite League. He spent the majority of his time with Linkopings, and the 19-year-old proved himself capable of playing with men much older than him. In 41 games, Junland scored five points and recorded 22 PIM. In the playoffs, he performed well above his regular-season pace, with five points and 20 PIM in 15 games, as his team advanced to the league final. This provided valuable big-game experience.

Junland has a reasonably good offensive upside, and was the top defensive scorer in the Swedish junior ranks in his draft year. His shooting is hard and accurate, a quality that could make him a good quarterback on the power play. He needs to better use his size (6’2, 198 pounds) to his advantage when working in his own zone.

Junland has signed with the Blues and will be in attendance at training camp. His contract has a clause that allows him to return to Sweden if he doesn’t make the Blues roster, and it’s reasonable to expect he may choose to do just that rather than play in the AHL.

18. Charles Linglet, LW, 7.0 D

Undrafted, signed as a free agent, 2006

Twenty-five-year-old Charles Linglet is a veteran of the prospect class. He had been playing with Peoria on an AHL contract to begin the 2006-07 season, and the Blues decided to ink him to a two-way deal midway through the year.

Linglet is a great scorer and playmaker, and has produced offense in whichever league he was playing in since junior. In 2006-07, he put away 31 goals in the AHL, placing him close to the top ten in the entire league in that category. He also produced 29 assists as one of the Rivermen’s most dependable forwards.

After years of paying his dues in the minors, Linglet may finally get a shot at the NHL in 2007-08. His talent with the puck could entice the Blues to give him a chance. If he fails to break through to the next level, he will provide the Rivermen with a scoring forward and veteran influence once again.

19. Aaron Palushaj, RW, 6.5 B

Drafted: 44th Overall, 2007

Winger Aaron Palushaj is a high-scoring forward drafted out of the USHL. The Michigan native plays a fairly complete game for such a young prospect. He is a good point producer, having racked up 67 of them in 56 games with the Des Moines Buccaneers in 2006-07, including 45 assists. Palushaj is good at mixing it up down low to gain the puck and feed it to an open teammate, and boasts an excellent shot himself. He’s a good stickhandler, and made his presence felt on the power play last season, putting away 13 goals with the man advantage. The 17-year-old has a good work ethic, and coaches and teammates respect his commitment to the game.

Palushaj is heading to the NCAA’s Michigan Wolverines in 2007-08. He has plenty of development ahead of him, but he has the potential to make a meaningful contribution in the NHL one day.

20. Cade Fairchild, D, 7.0 D

Drafted: 96th Overall, 2007

Another 2007 draft pick, defenseman Cade Fairchild, rounds out the Top 20. Fairchild is a mobile defenseman with good hands. He won’t hesitate to join a rush up ice, and can man the point on the power play if need be. He scored a pair of goals with the extra man in 2006-07 with the USNTDP, while also contributing 16 assists. Fairchild possesses good hockey sense, and can carry the puck forward on the counter-attack if such an opportunity presents itself. 

The Duluth, Minnesota, native is the type of player who probably wouldn’t have been drafted five years ago. But thanks to the NHL opening up the style of play, an undersized blueliner like Fairchild (5’10, 186 pounds) has chance at making it to the big show one day. 

Missing the Cut: Jeff Woywitka, D, Konstantin Barulin, G

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