The St. Louis Blues continue to improve their defensive depth

By Suraj Sukumar

Dmitrij Jaskin - St. Louis Blues

Photo: Winger Dmitrij Jaskin is part of a new class of prospects skating with the Blues’ new AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves (courtesy of Mark Buckner/NHLI via Getty Images)

The St. Louis Blues minor league team suffered drastically from a shortage of high-end talent last season. On the blue line, the Peoria Rivermen, lacked significant offensive production, putting immense pressure on the forwards.

Once the lockout concluded and players were sent back to the NHL, the Rivermen suffered even more once their only offensive producers were summoned to the parent club.

This season, the Chicago Wolves are the new farm team for the Blues and have benefit from many junior players making the jump. While their production is still low, the Wolves are packed with several young players, who should be developing with the team for the near future. Many of the Blues’ top prospects now play in the AHL, including several defensemen, which has been a major boost for the Blues’ pipeline.

Left Wing

Jaden Schwartz, who appeared in his 65th career NHL game and graduated from prospect status on November 5, has already displayed the potential to be a top-six forward. He has developed very smoothly and has been able to transition his two-way game to the pros. Even at the NHL level, Schwartz has had glimmers of brilliance, making him one of the more interesting prospects to follow in the NHL. If he can become a reliable offensive producer and still maintain his defensive play as well, Schwartz has all the makings of a great two-way winger.

Moving down the list, another promising two-way forward currently in the pros is Yannick Veilleux. He finished his junior career quite well and is trying to find his footing as a first year pro. In eight games last season with the Rivermen, Veilleux managed two goals and one assist. If he can play with the same intensity and nose for the net as he did in junior, Veilleux has the makings of a reliable power forward.

The Blues also have three prospects at the junior level that have continued to impress. First on the list is Ryan Tesink, a player who has demonstrated great offensive skill when healthy. He has not been able to play a full season, which will remain a question until he does. Splitting time between the Saint John Sea Dogs and Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, Tesink was able to score 17 goals and 24 assists in 41 games last season.

William Carrier is another high-end offensive player in the QMJHL and has demonstrated consistent production when on the ice. He was sidelined last season and only played 34 games, but still managed 16 goals and 26 assists. Both players will need to stay healthy and play the full year to make the most of their final year of junior hockey.

Zach Pochiro is the third and final left winger at the junior level. While his offensive totals are not horrible, he is at most a power forward and tends to spend too much time in the penalty box. He has started the 2013-14 season with eight goals and eight assists in 18 games, which is a good sign, but he will need to keep that pace all season to prove his skills in the offensive zone.

Lastly, Mackenzie MacEachern is currently playing in the NCAA with Michigan State University. He played with the Chicago Steel of the USHL and managed respectable numbers. As a collegiate freshman, MacEachern will have ample time to hone his skills before making the jump to the pros. For now, he must concentrate on staying consistent and making plays for his team. He needs to improve his strength and become more responsible in the defensive zone as well.

Center

The center position is easily the weakest for the St. Louis Blues, with only one player currently playing in the North American pro ranks. Pat Cannone, who currently plays with the Wolves, has spent the last two full seasons with the Binghamton Senators and is currently 27 years old. He is a solid skater and demonstrates a good two-way game but has not made a splash in any other facet. He will need to have a big season if he hopes to make the jump to the NHL soon.

The Blues also have just one prospect currently playing at the junior level. Tyrel Seaman, who had a difficult second year with the Brandon Wheat Kings, is now going into his third junior season and will need to improve his offensive game. He knows how to use his size and can throw the body with ease, but to garner more responsibility, Seaman must improve his skating and offensive skills to take his game to the next level.

Evgeny Grachev and Philip McRae are currently trying their luck overseas after very poor performances as professionals in North America. Grachev, who has been in and out of the AHL and NHL for the last four seasons, is now playing for Admiral Vladivostok of the KHL. McRae, who is currently in the SM-liiga, has never reached his potential in North America. After a stellar junior career, McRae saw his entry-level contract come to an end without receiving an offer from the Blues. It is likely that both these players will stay in Europe for the near future.

At the collegiate level, Max Gardiner and Max Tardy present a bit more optimism for the Blues. Gardiner, who is now in his second season with Pennsylvania State University, has demonstrated solid playmaking skills at the NCAA level and continues to develop his offensive skills. He has good size and a solid two-way game, which will make up for any lack of offensive production. While it will be difficult to transition his playmaking skills to the NHL, Gardiner still has some time in the NCAA to improve. Tardy on the other hand, is now in his fourth season with the University of Minnesota-Duluth and has never really found his offensive touch. In 81 career games, Tardy has just three goals and eight assists. However, it is his defensive game that gets him his dues, but he will need to get stronger if he hopes to crack an NHL bottom-six.

Right Wing

As opposed to the depth at center, the St. Louis Blues boast a lot of talent at the pro level. At the NHL level, Vladimir Tarasenko has been put into a scoring role almost immediately, and will continue to develop into a top-six scoring winger. He has the size, skill and speed to be an elite player, but he will need to stay healthy and become more consistent if he hopes to develop into a top scorer in the NHL.

At the AHL level, some of the top junior prospects from last season are making their pro debuts. Most notably, Ty Rattie and Dmitrij Jaskin have made the jump and are now playing with the Wolves. They have both demonstrated elite level skill at the junior level, but will need to make a successful transition to the AHL. Given his size, Rattie will have to work extra hard to be able to deal with the physicality of the pros. Jaskin’s biggest issue has been consistency, where he has gone from absolutely dominant to completely invisible. He has the size and skill to excel at the next level, but he will need to improve his work ethic and stay motivated to be a reliable top-six forward.

Tyler Shattock, Cody Beach, Sebastian Wannstrom, and Sergei Andronov are all in the pro ranks and have been for quite some time. While Shattock, Wannstrom, and Andronov are currently playing with the Wolves, Beach was sent down to the Kalamazoo Wings of the ECHL. Shattock is not much of an offensive guy but can score some gritty goals while putting in his work in the defensive zone. Both Wannstrom and Andronov made their way over from Europe very recently, which will be one of the major transitions to focus on. Wannstrom is a strong skater and while he possesses some offensive skill, his two-way game makes him a versatile player. Andronov, on the other hand, will need to focus heavily on his defensive game moving forward.

At the NCAA level, Sam Kurker is the lone right winger for the Blues. He is going into his second season with Boston University and will likely see increased responsibility since his rookie season. Being drafted in the second round, Kurker comes from the prep school ranks and is a strong skating power forward. He is not very flashy, but makes up for his lack of skill in grittiness and size. To be a successful power forward in the pros, Kurker will need to improve his two-way game and continue to improve his offensive game.

Defense

Jani Hakanpaa and Joel Edmundson are currently the most promising prospects at the pro level. Edmundson is coming off a stellar junior career and Hakanpaa made his way from Europe last season. Both players have room to grow offensively while already possessing incredible size and strength. They are both projected to be NHL-caliber defensemen, and improving their offensive play while maintaining their solid defensive game will be key to their future success.

Other defensemen at the pro level include Cade Fairchild, Brett Ponich, and David Shields. All three players have had their fair share of issues in becoming reliable pro defenders. Fairchild has suffered more from injuries issues than lack of production, while Ponich and Shields have shifted between the ECHL and AHL over the last few seasons. All players need to find consistency while playing well in both ends of the ice.

The Blues’ best defensive prospect, Tommy Vannelli, currently plays in the WHL for the Medicine Hat Tigers. He is in his first season of junior hockey after developing at the high school level and with the U.S. National Development Team. He has displayed great defensive awareness and offensive skill. He is a solid puck mover with great vision. He is currently averaging a point per game in the WHL and if this continues, Vannelli will attract significant attention before the season is over.  

Nick Walters is another defenseman at the CHL level who is known more for his physical play and dropping the gloves. He has shown good puck-moving skills. With this likely being his last season in junior, Walters will need to make solid strides to have an immediate impact at the pro level.

Petteri Lindbohm and Santeri Saari are currently playing in Europe. Both players are currently playing in the SM-liiga, Lindbohm with Assat Pori and Saari with Jokerit Helsinki. They have been trying to find their footing as pros, but will have ample time to grow in Europe. Both have shown some signs of offensive skill, but will need to become more reliable in their own zone. They are still very young and will be able to get the minutes they need to develop for the North American ranks.

Jordan Schmaltz is another great prospect for the Blues in the NCAA ranks. He is currently in his second season with the University of North Dakota and will look to garner more responsibility, especially on the powerplay. He has shown great skating and vision to go along with his offensive skills. He’s a solid passer and will continue to develop his offensive skills at the college level.

Another college player in the Blues’ system is Colton Parayko. Parayko is now in his sophomore season with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and continues to develop his game. His offensive skills have been on display while his physical play is the best part of his game. His skating is his biggest issue, but should have a few more years to get his game ready for the pros.

Goaltenders

Jake Allen is currently the best goaltender in the Blues’ pipeline. He played in 15 NHL games last season when the Blues needed some help in goal and he fared pretty well. He amassed a 9-4-0 record with a 2.46 goals against average and .905 save percentage. He is now the full-time starter for the Wolves and will likely garner a large amount of ice time this season. He has the potential of a number one goalie in the NHL and should continue to develop while Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak man the Blues’ net.

Another solid goaltender in the pros is Jordan Binnington. He had an absolutely stellar junior career, finishing with career numbers and getting selected to represent Canada at the World Junior Championships. Since he will not get much playing time behind Allen, Binnington was sent to the Wings of the ECHL to hopefully have a better chance at starts. He too has the makings of a starting goaltender in the NHL, but will have to prove himself in the pro ranks before getting a shot with the big club.

At the junior level, Francois Tremblay is the only prospect in the Blues pipeline, and is currently in his fourth season with the Val d’Or Foreurs of the QMJHL. In terms of production, Tremblay has by no means been a standout junior player, but he has maintained the starting role going on three seasons. His speed in the crease has been a concern, and he will need to use this final season of junior to find his game for the pros. With the type of talent in the Blues pipeline, Tremblay will have to stand out significantly to get a chance at the pros anytime soon. For now, he will finish his junior career and likely play in the AHL or ECHL next season.

Niklas Lundstrom has been climbing the European ranks for quite some time and is the starting goaltender of Sodertalje SK in the Allsvenskan, the second level hockey league in Sweden. He was initially slated to play with AIK with the Swedish Hockey League (previously the SEL), but they currently have two goalies splitting time. Lundstrom should get a much bigger opportunity in the second tier league, and with the drop in competition, he should be able to master his game for the next level. Lundstrom possesses the skills of a starting goaltender, but it will be interesting to see how long he stays in Europe.

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