The youth movement will be in full swing when the Blues open training camp on Sept. 13. Numerous veterans remain, but several rookies and prospects will be given the opportunity to secure an NHL roster spot. St. Louis is looking to build on a successful second half of 2006-07. This will be head coach Andy Murray’s first full year behind the bench.
On the back end, all eyes will be on defenseman Erik Johnson as he makes his professional debut. After one season with the NCAA’s Minnesota Golden Gophers, the 19-year-old expects to be featured on the Blues’ blue line right off the bat. The defense corps is a solid group, featuring the likes of Barrett Jackman, Christian Backman, Jay McKee, and Eric Brewer. These veterans should help take the pressure off Johnson in his first campaign. Also entering their rookie seasons will be Swedish defenders Jonas Junland and Alexander Hellstrom. The likely destination for both players is the Peoria Rivermen, St. Louis’ primary AHL affiliate, though Junland’s contract allows him to return to Sweden if he chooses.
One player to watch will be Steve Wagner, an undrafted free-agent pick-up. An offensive minded blueliner, Wagner scored 29 points in 38 games with MSU-Mankato last season. He played 14 games with Peoria after his NCAA season concluded, and has been piling up points at the Traverse City Prospect Tournament that the Blues are participating in. He too is a good bet to figure prominently on the Rivermen blue line to begin the season.
Up front, the Blues are anticipating the arrivals of Nikolai Lemtyugov and Tomas Kana, a second-round selection from 2006. Both rookies will be in tough to crack the opening day roster, but spots will be found for them if their performance in camp warrants it. Kana, solid at both ends of the rink, would probably slide comfortably onto the third or fourth line if he can beat out fourth-line veterans like Dan Hinote or Ryan Johnson. Lemtyugov is more offensive minded, but if he shows he can score at the NHL level, the Blues may not hesitate to part ways with an aging veteran like Martin Rucinsky to make room for him. If Kana and Lemtyugov fail to make the NHL when the season begins, they will certainly be go-to players with the Rivermen.
Also coming to camp in search of an NHL job will be 19-year-old centerman Patrik Berglund, the 25th overall pick from 2006. The young Swede possess a great deal of raw offensive talent, and he should be given a fair shake by coach Andy Murray to make a team that doesn’t boast an overabundance of scoring punch. Still, Berglund might be better served by playing another year in Sweden (he would quite likely return to Europe, as opposed to reporting to the minors), and would probably need a very impressive preseason to stay in North America.
The most intriguing prospect to keep an eye on during camp may be David Perron, a first-round selection out of the QMJHL at the most recent NHL draft. At the draft, Perron stated that it was his aim to be in the NHL this season, a goal that seemed rather lofty for a 19-year-old with just one year of major junior hockey under his belt. But the Blues have signed the offensively gifted winger to a contract, and he has performed well during the Canada-Russia junior series currently underway, so perhaps the notion of him donning a blue and yellow sweater in October isn’t that far-fetched. However, the Blues have not been known to rush their prospects, so unless Perron forces his way onto the roster with an outstanding training camp, he will be reassigned to Lewiston. His situation is unique in that he must either play in the NHL or head back to junior. Due to his age and the fact that he was drafted out of the CHL, he is ineligible to play in the AHL.
Ryan Reaves and Nicholas Drazenovic, both out of the WHL, will also begin their pro careers. It is probable that they will be skating with the Rivermen for 2007-08. Reaves is a hard-nosed winger, best suited to a role on the third or fourth line, while Drazenovic is a more offensive-minded center.
In goal, it will be a battle to see who backs up Manny Legace. Veteran Jason Bacashihua is still in the picture, but if Hannu Toivonen, acquired from Boston in the summer, performs well, he should be in line for the position. Marek Schwarz seems destined to be the starting goaltender in Peoria once again. Twenty-four-year-old Mike McKenna, a St. Louis native, is at the prospect tournament, and his performance thus far has earned him an invite to the main camp in an effort to win a minor-league roster position. Finnish netminder Juuso Riksman, appearing in North America for the first time, could also contend for a roster spot in the AHL.
Every season, the Blues send a contingent of prospects to Traverse City, Michigan, to participate in a tournament against other NHL teams’ youngsters. This roster consists of players on try-outs and recent draftees, in addition to prospects who are under contract.
So far, the Blues have come out guns a-blazing, recording a 6-4 victory over Columbus, and a 5-0 win over Dallas. Berglund has been on fire with seven points so far, and blueliners Johnson and Wagner have also frequented the score sheet. McKenna stopped all 41 Dallas shots in the shutout victory.
The tournament roster is as follows:
Blues Preseason Schedule
Sept. 16 vs Atlanta
Sept. 18 at Dallas
Sept. 22 at Atlanta
Sept. 23 at Chicago
Sept. 26 at Minnesota
Sept. 28 vs Minnesota
Sept. 29 vs Chicago
The Blues begin the 2007-08 campaign on Oct. 4, when they travel to the desert to face-off against the Phoenix Coyotes.
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