Three weeks after the draft, it’s safe to say that the buzz at 14th and Clark has probably died down by now, but Blues management has made it no secret that they are exceptionally happy with the players they left Nashville with on June 22nd.
“We’re very happy with [the draft]. We realize the results are not for another three or four years, but that’s what it’s all about with our draft,” said Blues general manager Larry Pleau. ”I just love the draft and how you can build the lifeblood of your organization. We had 12 picks, which is more than usual. But I would have loved to have 50 picks. Twelve certainly gives us a chance to stumble on perhaps a real find.”
The first of those twelve players that could be a real find is Shawn Belle, the Blues first round selection.
”Shawn is big and an excellent skater. Like all of these kids, he needs to mature — and then look out. From a physical standpoint, he’s as strong as any player in this draft and he’s a great kid to boot. St. Louis got an exciting prospect,” said Vancouver GM Brian Burke of the athletic defenseman selected with the 30th overall pick.
Blues director of amateur scouting, Jarmo Kekalainen, echoed those sentiments, “I think we got a very good skater. Probably one of the best in the whole draft. Fast. Quick. Very agile. Strong as an ox. He is the best athlete I have EVER seen — and that covers a lot of great NHL stars. We’re pretty excited about that.”
With the second round pick (62nd overall) acquired in a trade that sent Cory Stillman to Tampa Bay, the Blues took another player that possesses excellent physical attributes, Minnesota native David Backes (pronounced Back-iss).
“He’s big, 6-4 ½ and he has exceptional hands for a player that size,” Kekalainen said of the bruising center who will be moving on to the NCAA next season. “He needs to get stronger and faster. But, to me, he’s a great competitor. Loves to look into the face of an opponent and then beat him. He was clearly one of the major factors with his leadership in Lansing’s championship team in the USHL.”
“I love to play in the corners and in front of the net. I like to play the body and I think scouts could see that I go 100 percent all the time,” said Backes. “Personally, I think I have the skills to play on a first or second scoring line, but I just want to make it to the NHL any way I can.”
With the first of three picks in the third round, St. Louis added CSB’s top rated European goaltender to their organization. At 84th overall, Konstantin Barulin could end up being a steal for Kekalainen.
The Russian 18-year-old is a strong, hybrid goaltender that is technically sound, a good skater and he is strong mentally. Barulin, who is coached by the same person that coached Russian great Vladislav Tretiak, is expected to start for the Russian U-20 team in the next year and also for Gazovik Tyumen of the Russian Upper League.
Out of Seattle of the WHL, the Blues selected defenseman Zach FitzGerald with their second pick in the third round.
“You’re always looking for big, strong defensemen with a mean streak,” said Kekalainen. “His toughness is a skill the way he uses it, if you know what I mean.” The rugged defenseman, who idolizes Scott Stevens, will need to work on his skating and passing over his next two years at the junior level.
With the final pick of the first day of the draft and the last pick of the third round, St. Louis chose Konstantin Zakharov out of Belarus. The 6’1″ forward performed well at the U18 World Junior Championships putting up impressive numbers, but many felt that his production may have been a product of his highly rated linemate, Andrei Kostytsin, who was drafted 10th overall by Montreal this year. However, Zakharov will be the first to tell you that he has ability of his own.
“I really like the way Peter Forsberg and Jaromir Jagr play. No Joke. I have very good skill. Maybe not Forsberg or Jagr, yet,” said Zakharov. “I love to go one on one with a defender, just like Forsberg. And I think the thing that stands out in my game is my creativity.”
This fall Zakharov will get a chance to showcase those skills in a more competitive league. The confident forward will be suiting up for the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL.
With the Blues first pick of day two, they selected center Alexandre Bolduc. The French Canadian was the 18th rated North American forward on the midseason rankings, but dropped to 46th by the end of the season.
”I had a bruised collarbone and missed about five games and when I came back my team [had] changed coaches,” Bolduc said. ”I went from playing on the first line and the point on the power play with my first coach to playing on the fourth line with the second coach.
”That’s why my stats went down, but it helped me learn to play better defensively and make myself into a better all-round player. I wanted to show the new coach what I could do — and by the playoffs I was back up to the first line, but my numbers don’t show what I can do.”
If the drop in the rankings and in turn the draft turns out to be unwarranted, the Blues could end up with a steal in Bolduc.
In the fifth round, the Blues selected Lee Stempniak, Dartmouth teammate of current Blues prospect Trevor Byrne.
Kekalainen said, ”We feel he’s still got a lot of upside. He’s strong at 6’0″, 190 with 40 points in 29 games. Mostly, however, he has great character and was a real leader on that team.”
Chris Beckford-Tseu, a goaltender out of the OHL, was the Blues choice in the sixth round. Though his numbers aren’t very impressive, the Blues saw something that others did not.
“’When I look at this goaltender, I see his size and quickness,” said Kekalainen. ”I also see an upside to him because of that size and quickness. Get him some help with his technique — and you might have an NHL goalie some day.”
Like Beckford-Tseu, the Blues seventh round pick, Jonathan Lehun, also doesn’t have flashy numbers. With St. Cloud State of the NCAA Lehun posted only 14 points in 31 games last season, but will be transferring to Owen Sound of the OHL next season where he expects to take on a larger role.
”His numbers were not the greatest, but you could see his skills,” said Kekalainen. ”Our scouts saw him play a lot at the Tier 2 junior level the year before — and his numbers there were eye-popping.”
One of only a couple picks this year that could be classified as a reach, the Blues selected Evgeny Skachkov their seventh round pick. The Russian forward, who is a year older than most selected in this year’s draft, has very little on his resume to warrant being selected in the NHL draft.
“The attraction with this player is the interest in CSKA (the former Red Army team),” said Keklainen. “They have long been a great development program and we think this kid has the skills they can refine.”
In the eighth round, the Blues selected their first player of the draft that lacked size, something they have traditionally done much earlier. At 5’8″, 156 pounds, Andre Pervyshin doesn’t exactly have the frame of an NHL defenseman, but that didn’t stop Kekalainen from gushing about the small Russian.
”For a defenseman it may seem like he’s too small to play in the NHL, but Andrei is what I call a good risk,” Kekalainen says. ”We think he can grow a little.”
”But the big thing is he’s a highly, highly, highly, highly skilled defenseman. He sees the ice like a star NHLer, he runs a great power play and he can pass the puck as well as anybody.”
Finally, with their last pick of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, St. Louis selected Juha-Matti Aaltonen out of Finland. The 5’11″, 170 pound winger will need to add some size and mature his game if he wants to join the list of late round solid prospects the Blues have recently developed. Aaltonen was expected to be a mid-round pick, so the chances of him becoming a late round steal might actually be quite good.
Considered one of the best technically skilled players to come out of Finland this year, Aaltonen is an excellent stickhandler and possesses a great deal of patience. However, he has a tendency to hold on the puck too long.
”Our Finnish scouts just loved this kid,” said Kekalainen. ”A legitimate goal scorer. Needs to get stronger. But oh what a finisher. And he’s got a little bit of an edge to the way he plays.”
With their 12 picks this year, the Blues added some needed depth to their farm system, a system that now contains almost 50 prospects. At right wing, the organization is now stacked, but it could still use some help on left wing as Peter Sejna is the only player with great potential on that side. There’s a lot of depth at center, but only a couple have top line potential and the same could be said about the blueline. And, as ironic as it is, the strongest area below the NHL level for the St. Louis Blues is between the pipes.
Quotes provided by StLouisBlues.com