St. Louis Blues maintain deep system despite graduations

By Timothy Freitag
Photo: In his freshman season with Colorado College, Jaden Schwartz has been among the best players in all of collegiate hockey. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Entering the season with high expectations, the Blues underperformed for much of the season, causing management to pull the trigger on several high-profile trades, including one that saw former first overall pick Erik Johnson moved to the Colorado Avalanche for power forward Chris Stewart and puck-moving defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.

1. (1) Vladimir Tarasenko, RW, 8.5C
Acquired: 1st round, 16th overall, 2010

Despite missing part of the KHL season with a shoulder injury, Vladimir Tarasenko has done nothing to temper expectations since the draft. If anything, his arrival to North America is even more highly anticipated.

Tarasenko has always been a prized prospect, but he fell in the draft because teams questioned, whether or not, he was committed to playing in the NHL. That doubt caused Tarasenko to fall in the first round and that allowed the Blues to trade David Rundblad (OTT) for the 16th pick and draft Tarasenko.

The dynamic forward has since led the Russian WJC team to a gold medal, by spear-heading an incredible come-from-behind win against the favored Canadian team. Tarasenko scored the tying goal as Russia erased a three goal, third period deficit, on their way to a five- goal outburst and the win. Tarasenko was everywhere on the ice the entire tournament, and showed why he is such an exciting and dynamic prospect. He scored 11 points in seven games and played to a plus-eight.

St. Louis fans are hopeful he jumps the pond next year to help put some goals on the board.

2. (2) Jaden Schwartz, C, 8.0C
Acquired: 1st round, 14th overall, 2010

While not the most conspicuous player on the ice, Jaden Schwartz produces. He puts up numbers in bunches and that is why St. Louis fans are excited to see him continue to develop. While not as dynamic as Tarasenko, Schwartz should blossom into a solid two -way forward with a lot of offensive upside.

In his first season in the NCAA, Jaden Schwartz has amassed 47 points in only 30 games for Colorado College, mostly playing on a line with his brother, Rylan and Steve Schultz. The only thing that has slowed Jaden down this season was a broken ankle, which he sustained during the World Junior Championships. After sustaining the injury, Schwartz showed guts by playing the side wall on Team Canada’s powerplay, and chipping in a goal. However, the injury was too much and he was shelved for the rest of the tournament. Schwartz has since returned from his injury and has not missed a beat.

While the future is bright for Schwartz, he has not yet determined his future at Colorado College, so Blues’ fans may have to be patient for another year or two.

3. (NR) Kevin Shattenkirk, D, 7.5B
Acquired: Trade with Colorado Avalanche, 2011

In one of the most shocking trades of the last few years, the St. Louis Blues sent former first overall pick Erik Johnson and Jay McClement to the Colorado Avalanche for Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk. The hope for Blues fans is that Shattenkirk can continue developing into a strong defenseman with offensive upside to complement their young stable of defensemen such as Alex Pietrangelo and Ian Cole.

In his first 19 games with the Blues, Shattenkirk has chipped in eight assists and one goal. The young rearguard should use the rest of this season to transition to his new surroundings and hopefully he can produce for the Blues like he did the Avs, racking up 26 points in his first 46 games in the NHL.

4. (3) Jake Allen, G, 8.0C
Acquired: 2nd round, 34th overall, 2008

With solid goaltending throughout the organization, it is hard to tell when Jake Allen is going to get his opportunity in net with the Blues, but it is easy to see why fans and the front office are so excited about Allen.

In his first year of pro hockey, Allen started with a bang by posting 1.70 goals against average, a 12-3 record and a .947 save percentage through December. Since the new year, his numbers have fallen off that pace, but a lot of that can be attributed to Ben Bishop‘s call up and a revolving door of injury replacements.

The future is bright for the 20-year-old, and he will have a chance to be the man in Peoria next year. It is likely that Ben Bishop will get the call to be Jaroslav Halak‘s backup, leaving the door wide open for Allen to show what he has next season.

5. (4) Ian Cole, D, 7.5B

Acquired: 1st round, 18th overall, 2007

Ian Cole is another stallion in a stable full of young defensemen in the St. Louis Blues system. The 6’2, 220 pound defenseman is built to punish forwards, while his stick-handling and passing make him an adept puck mover.

After almost making the team out of training camp, Cole did not have to wait long to get his chance in the NHL. He has moved up and down this year, but with the opportunity presented by the trades of Erik Johnson and Eric Brewer, Cole will have a very good chance of playing in the NHL all of next year.

If he continues his steady improvement, he will be a valuable piece as a second pairing defender with the Blues.

6. (6) Philip McRae, C/W, 7.0C
Acquired: 2nd round, 33rd overall, 2008

Phil McRae is another Blues’ prospect getting his first exposure to pro hockey this year. The plan was to let McRae play in important situations for the Rivermen, to help him continue to develop. Rivermen head coach Jared Bednar has leaned heavily on the young center to play in all situations, and McRae has not disappointed.

With 26 points in 46 AHL games, McRae is on track to a solid NHL career. He is very good in the corners and between the circles, and he wins a lot of battles in those areas. He shields the puck nicely and can pass the puck very nicely. The main concern for his long-term success is his skating ability. If he can improve his wheels, McRae will enjoy a long career in the NHL as a second or third line forward with power play ability.

7. (7) Ben Bishop, G, 7C
Acquired: 3rd round, 85th overall, 2005

Ben Bishop is tall but he is also a very good goaltender. Drafted out of the North American League in 2005, Bishop has continued to improve and has positioned himself to become the Blues’ backup goaltender for next season.

In 34 games for the Peoria Rivermen, Bishop has played to a 17-14-2 record and a 2.58 goals against average. His continued improvement earned Bishop a fill in role for the Blues while Jaroslav Halak was injured. In his seven games, Bishop provided Blues fans with some hope for next year by providing solid goaltending in a fill in role.

If Ty Conklin is not re-signed by the Blues, Bishop should get his chance to stick with the Blues out of training camp next year.

8. (8) Jonas Junland, D, 7.0D
Acquired: 3rd round, 64th overall, 2006

The play of Jonus Junland is similar to the play of NHLer’s Marc-Andre Bergeron and Petteri Nummelin. These players all put up eye-popping statistics from the blue line, but are they are liabilities in their own end of the ice.

Before moving back to his native Sweden, Junland had amassed 75 points in only 144 AHL games. Those numbers are incredible and worthy of an NHL spot, but Junland’s defensive inconsistency and the depth of the Blues’ defensemen limited Junland to only four games in the NHL.

Junland is a very talented player, but there is no guarantee he comes back and plays in the NHL. The most likely way he will come back is as a member of another organization willing to give him an NHL spot.

9. (9) Jori Lehtera, C, 6.5C
Acquired: 3rd round, 65th overall, 2008

In his first year in the KHL, Jori Lehtera is playing some very good hockey. With 38 points in his first 53 games, Lehtera is the sixth leading scorer on a Lokomotiv team which is leading the Western Conference of the KHL.

Lehtera has always been an intriguing prospect because of his ability to score and set the table for teammates. What has held him back, to this point, is his skating ability and defensive inconsistency.

Lehtera signed a two-year contract with Lokomotiv before this season, so he could not come over any sooner than the 2012-13 season.

The Blues have signed Lehtera to an entry-level contract to retain his rights, so there is still hope that he comes over. However, with the depth of the Blues forward group, it is hard to see a scenario where he plays for the Blues.

10. (15) Brett Ponich, D, 7.0D
Acquired: 2nd round, 48th overall, 2009

When you play on the same ice as Ryan Johansen (CLB) and Nino Niederreiter (NYI), it is hard to get noticed, but Brett Ponich has been just as important to the Portland Winterhawks’ resurgence as those two top level prospects. Since being selected higher than most thought he would be, Ponich has improved his skating and defensive awareness, which has turned him into a viable prospect.

At 6’7 and 225lbs, Brett Ponich fits the mold of intimidating blueliner in the mold of NHL veteran Hal Gill. Ponich has very limited offensive potential, but with his size and reach, he could develop into a solid shut-down defenseman. His skills complement the skills of the other Blues’ rearguards like Shattenkirk, Pietrangelo and Cole, so he could very well find a niche in the next few years after a little seasoning in the AHL.

11. (16) Stefan Della Rovere, LW, 6.0B
Acquired: Trade with Washington Capitals, 2010

Stefan Della Rovere is finishing up his first year of pro hockey which included his NHL debut. Though it has not been an extraordinary season for Della Rovere, he has chipped in 14 points along with a physical game and solid two-way play.

Della Rovere projects as a third or fourth line guy in the NHL. Someone who can play the penalty kill, provide energy and stand up for a teammate. Though he is flying under the radar right now, some more seasoning at the AHL level will help him make a full-time step up to the NHL where he will be a fan favorite.

12. (10) Sebastian Wannstrom, RW, 7.0D
Acquired: 2nd round, 44th overall, 2010

Sebastian Wannstrom has had a lackluster 2010-11 season in the SEL for Brynas. The youngster has played in 45 games, but has only contributed a few assists. While he will get more opportunity down the line, Wannstrom did have a chance to showcase his skills at the World Junior Championships this year.

While playing for his native Sweden, Wannstrom tallied five points in six games.
It is not apparent what Wannstrom’s plans are for playing in North America, but he is another talented forward in a pipeline of young, talented forwards for the Blues.

13. (17) Mark Cundari, D, 6.5C
Acquired: Signed as Free Agent, 2008

The Blues signed the rearguard as a free agent in 2008 and Cundari has taken advantage of the opportunity. While playing in all situations for the Rivermen this season, Cundari has tallied 10 goals and 20 assists in 63 games.

Despite his size limitations, Cundari plays a mean game as indicated by his 99 penalty minutes. He is very solid defensively and wins battles. Despite the Blues depth at the blue line, Cundari is making his case to be included in the bottom-pairing going into next season in St. Louis.

14. (14) Tyler Shattock, RW, 7.0D
Acquired: 4th round, 108th overall, 2009

Tyler Shattock is another Blues prospect playing his first season of pro hockey this season. The versatile right winger can play all three forward positions which makes him a valuable contributor.

Though his transition to the AHL has been a little slow, power forwards are usually a little slower adjusting when moving up a level. Continued time in Peoria should help him gain confidence and transition to the confined space of pro hockey.

15. (NR) Brock Beukeboom, D, 6.5C
Acquired: Trade with Tampa Bay Lightning, 2011

Blues fans were surprised when the St. Louis brass decided to move Captain Eric Brewer around trade deadline time. The Blues received a third round pick and Brock Beukeboom as compensation.

Though the young blueliner has a lot of room to grow, he could projects at the pro level to be a defensive defenseman able to chip in offensively. Beukeboom played most of his youth as a forward and is still learning how to play defense. Though he is agile enough as a skater, he needs to continue to develop his ability to react from the blue line.

Though he is still raw as a prospect, he should continue to develop as there is no need to rush him along.

16. (18) Anthony Nigro, C, 6.5C
Acquired: 6th round, 155th overall, 2008

Anthony Nigro is a versatile player who has shown glimpses of potential as a power forward. Nigro is playing his first season of pro hockey in Peoria and has chipped in seven goals and six assists for the Rivermen. His development has been slowed by a high ankle sprain, which kept him out 18 games. He has recently returned to the lineup.

Nigro is a solid player, but his potential is limited by his skating ability. If he can improve that area of his game, he could make bigger impact at the AHL level next season.

17. (NR) Nicholas Drazenovic, C, 7.0D
Acquired: 6th round, 171st overall, 2005

The 24-year-old Nicholas Drazenovic has been an important player for the Rivermen all season. The center has scored 17 goals and 22 assists, which earned him a brief callup to St. Louis.

Drazenovic is a quick skater who can create for teammates, but right now lacks the physical game to stick in the NHL. He will have to continue to round out his game if he hopes to develop into more than a top-option at the AHL level.

18. (NR) Cody Beach, RW, 7.0D
Acquired: 5th round, 134th overall, 2010

The 18-year-old Beach has continued his development after a trade from the Calgary Hitmen to the Moose Jaw Warriors. While he continues to play a sandpaper game, the forward has found an ability to create for his teammates as indicated by his 28 assists since the trade.

Beach should continue to develop next year in the WHL. He is the type of player who endears himself to fans by staying involved with his physical play as well as his willingness to slip the mitts. He needs to pick his spots a little bit better so he can stay on the ice and contribute offensively.

19. (11) Cade Fairchild, D, 6.5C
Acquired: 4th round, 96th overall, 2007

University of Minnesota Senior, Cade Fairchild has enjoyed a productive season on the Gophers’ blue line, and has recently signed an entry-level contract with the St. Louis Blues.

Fairchild is a good two-way defenseman who can move the puck or jump into the play, although he is a little undersized. Unfortunately, Rivermen fans will have to wait until next season to see Fairchild in action because of a late-season shoulder injury.

20. (5) Brett Sonne, C, 7.0D
Acquired: 3rd round, 85th overall, 2007

Center Brett Sonne continues to struggle in Peoria this season. Despite showing promise towards the end of the 2009-10 season, Sonne has slumped. Despite showing huge offensive potential in his last year of junior hockey, Sonne must transition his game into a two way forward who can play third and fourth line minutes for him to make it to the next level.

Another season in Peoria should help him continue to develop, but Sonne may not make it to the NHL level until he can play a solid two-way game. Hopefully he takes full advantage of his opportunities next season.