Blues goaltending pipeline

By Kyle McMahon

Blues goaltending prospects (Top 20 rating):

Marek Schwarz (3)
Hannu Toivonen (6)
Ben Bishop (12)
Reto Berra (NR)
Konstantin Barulin (NR)

St. Louis boasts a superb crop of prospects at the forward position, led by T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller, and a potential franchise defenseman in Erik Johnson, so sometimes it’s easy to forget that they also have a very promising stock of goaltenders on their way down the pipeline.

The discussion naturally must begin with Marek Schwarz, a first-round pick from the 2004 Entry Draft. Schwarz, a Czech native who was playing with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants at the time of the draft, came highly-touted. He’s had some ups and downs since then, but the projection as a starting netminder remains.

Schwarz came through with a good audition in 2006-07, his first pro season in North America, playing with the AHL’s Peoria Rivermen. He was quick out of the gate, and turned enough heads to earn a spot at the AHL all-star game. A groin injury slowed him down later on in the season, but he finished with a solid 19-13 win-loss record, with a 2.76 GAA and .899 save percentage.

Schwarz had to share goaltending duties with Jason Bacashihua and Chris Beckford-Tseu last year, but he now looks to have solidified his position as Peoria’s No. 1. He had teamed with Bacashihua again to begin this season, but the latter was recently dealt to Colorado, a sure sign that the Rivermen are now Schwarz’s team, and with good reason. The young netminder has been solid in all but his most recent start, a 6-3 loss to Iowa on Nov. 9. Aside from that, he is unbeaten in regulation and has a .908 save percentage.

Schwarz looks like a good bet to remain in the AHL throughout the season, save for an injury to one of the goaltenders on St. Louis’ roster. If his development can continue on the same curve, he looks like he may be ready to challenge for a job in the NHL by training camp of 2008.

By acquiring goaltender Hannu Toivonen from Boston in exchange for Carl Soderberg, the Blues have given themselves a second potential starter. Toivonen is a little older and more seasoned than Schwarz, and seems to have a pretty secure handle on the backup job in St. Louis. Thus far, Toivonen has only played in three games, but he has appeared solid. He has a 2.45 GAA with a .900 save percentage. The 23-year-old can expect to see more playing time as the season wears on and starter Manny Legace is in need of some rest.

Before arriving in St. Loius, Toivonen had put four seasons of North American pro under his belt in the Boston organization. After a pair of good seasons in the AHL with Providence, he earned a spot in the NHL in 2005-06, putting up very good numbers and a 9-5-4 record on a Bruins team that missed the playoffs. In January, he suffered a season-ending ankle injury, curtailing a very good start to his NHL career.

Perhaps due to the extended amount of time in the Bruins infirmary ward, Toivonen was unable to return to the previous year’s form in 2006-07. He won just three of 13 decisions, and found himself back in the minors by the end of the campaign. With another highly-touted Finnish goaltender, Tuukka Rask, on his way to Beantown, the Bruins felt Toivonen was expendable and dealt him to the Blues.

Toivonen will look to prove he still has a bright future ahead of him this season. If he can get back to the level he was at two seasons ago, the Blues will be satisfied, and certainly optimistic about the possibility of a Schwarz-Toivonen tag team a few years down the road. 

In the college ranks, the Blues have Ben Bishop, who has done nothing but win games since arriving at the University of Maine.

After leading the NAHL in wins in 2004-05, Bishop was drafted by his hometown Blues before heading off the NCAA. In two years with Maine, Bishop’s impressive play has elevated him from “just another third-round pick” to a very promising prospect. Back-to-back 21-win seasons is an impressive accomplishment, and gives Bishop a college winning percentage of .688. Proving his great freshman year was no fluke, Bishop went out in 2006-07 and bettered all of his personal statistics. He lowered his GAA to 2.14, while his save percentage climbed to .923, marks that are helped by playing in a low-scoring conference, but impressive nonetheless.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign is that, despite his success so far, there is still room for improvement. Bishop is a behemoth in goal, standing over six and a half feet tall. Once he learns to better use positioning to block the net, as opposed to employing natural athleticism to make many of his saves, he could be even better.

Bishop may have been ready to try his hand in the AHL this season, but there wasn’t really any room to fit him in, so returning to Maine for his junior season was an easy choice. In four games thus far, Bishop has a 2-1-1 record and .919 save percentage, which is currently tied for third place in the Hockey East conference.      

Not confined just to North America, St. Louis’ goaltending depth is present in Europe; specifically Russian stopper Konstantin Barulin and Swiss netminder Reto Berra.

Berra is the most recent draftee of the five goaltenders, selected in the fourth round of the 2006 draft.

Berra didn’t receive a great deal of playing time in either of the previous two seasons, but the Blues should be able to get a better handle on his progression in 2007-08.

The 20-year-old has joined Swiss-league powerhouse HC Davos. He has played in roughly half of his club’s games, posting a 6-4-0 record to this point. His GAA is 2.60 at the moment. Simply the fact that Berra is receiving adequate amounts of playing time is an encouraging sign, and should be great for his development. This has the potential to be a breakout season for Berra if he can maintain his level of play.

Berra’s youth makes it reasonable to assume he will remain in Europe for another season or two before him and the Blues start thinking about getting him inked to a contract and over to North America. He may not be rated as highly as some of the other goalies in St. Louis’ system, but is certainly a prospect to keep an eye on.

Russian Super League netminder Konstantin Barulin is not lacking in talent, but is perhaps surrounded by the most uncertainty amongst St. Louis’ prospect goaltenders.

The NHL and the Russian Federation have still not come to a player transfer agreement, meaning it has become more difficult to bring drafted Russian prospects over to North America. The amount of money available to players in the RSL is now greater than that available in North American minor leagues, so it is understandable that many Russians are choosing to remain at home instead of heading for the AHL. But many NHL teams are unwilling to give out one-way contracts to untested youngsters. Barulin is reportedly seeking an NHL-only contract from the Blues if he’s to uproot from his native country.

Barulin’s stats have been solid throughout his career thus far. He is a sizable goalie, with quick movements and a sharp glove. His save percentage has come in at .916 and .917 the past two seasons, and his record has been at or above .500 both years. He has represented Russia with the national team in various tournaments over the years, and was even a reserve goaltender at this past spring’s World Championships.

Barulin is back with Khimik this year, and has performed not too badly in seven games played. The RSL is a high quality league, so there are no worries that Barulin isn’t receiving good competition and developing by remaining in Europe. Due to the lack of a transfer agreement, his rights will be held indefinitely by St. Louis, so it isn’t imperative that they try to sign him immediately either. Eventually, the Blues will probably want to see just exactly what they’ve got, but as long as the contract situation remains murky, Barulin’s status as a prospect will be up in the air.

Few teams can claim to have two potential starting goaltenders waiting in the wings, and with the rights to five prospect goalies, depth is not a concern.   It won’t be long before they are put to the test.

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