Blues Top 20 prospects

By Brian Weidler

Long considered an organization that does a poor job of drafting and developing prospects, the St. Louis Blues have made great strides forward in this area over the last two drafts. Former Ottawa chief scout Jarmo Kekalainen was signed as the Blues’ director of amateur scouting prior to the 2003 draft, and his influence has helped the Blues land several highly-regarded prospects in the two drafts he’s led. Kekalainen draft picks account for 11 of the Blues’ current top 20 prospects, including five of the top ten (Schwartz, Zakharov, Söderberg, Barulin, Backes, Alexandrov, Fitz Gerald, Bolduc, Aaltonen, Polak and Birner).

This list of the Blues’ Top 20 prospects is based on potential long-term impact on the hockey club, and is not necessarily a reflection of who is closest to making the NHL. Players are assigned a rating based on criteria established by Hockey’s Future. There are several factors that to varying degrees help determine ranking order: player age, current league and years in that league, team quality, statistics, awards, international tournament performances, location (North America or Europe) and foreseeable opportunity.

Blues Top 20 Quick Glance

1. Peter Sejna, LW
2. Marek Schwarz, G
3. Alexei Shkotov, RW/C
4. Konstantin Zakharov, LW
5. Carl Soderberg, C
6. Jason Bacashihua, G
7. Jay McClement, C
8. Konstantin Barulin, G
9. Trevor Byrne, D
10. David Backes, C/RW
11. Viktor Alexandrov, LW/C
12. Zack Fitz Gerald, D
13. Alexandre Bolduc, C
14. Jon DiSalvatore, RW/C
15. Colin Hemingway, RW
16. Robin Jonsson, D
17. Juha-Matti Aaltonen, LW
18. Dennis Wideman, D
19. Roman Polak, D
20. Michal Birner, C

Key: Rank, Name, Position, Age
Draft Position. Rating. Role.

1. Peter Sejna, LW, 24
Draft: Signed as free agent, April 2003. Rating: 8.0. Role: Top line winger.

Sejna enjoyed a storybook 2002-03 season, as the NCAA’s leading scorer and Hobey Baker winner, signing with the Blues on the last day of the regular season, and scoring his first NHL goal hours later on national TV against Hall of Famer Patrick Roy. The stage seemed set for Sejna to jump right into the NHL and contribute, but the start of the 2003-04 season revealed that the youngster still needed time as an understudy before taking on a starring role. Sejna was sent to AHL affiliate Worcester in November, and after a slow start there, salvaged his rookie season with a respectable 41 points, and a +8 performance. The Blues still expect Sejna to take another run at full-time NHL duty either this year or next, and the 5’11, 195-pound winger is projected as a top-line player when his development is complete.

2. Marek Schwarz, G, 18
Draft: 1st round, 17th overall, 2004. Rating: 8.0. Role: Starting goaltender.

Possibly the steal of the 2004 draft, Schwarz fell into the Blues’ laps with the 17th overall pick. St. Louis had acquired prospect Jason Bacashihua from Dallas 24 hours earlier, and weren’t necessarily looking for another goaltender, but Schwarz was just too good to pass over when the Blues’ first pick came up. The consensus choice as the top draft-eligible European goalie in 2004, Schwarz played 23 games in the Czech Extraliga as a 17-year-old and posted an 8-13-2 record with a 3.20 GAA and a .910 save percentage, splitting time with Sparta Praha, Trinec and Plzen. He also played for the Czech Republic at the U-18 World Juniors, and in the U-20 tournament as well. Schwarz is quick, with a fast glove hand, and has the right mental makeup to be an effective starter at the pro level. He will play in Vancouver of the WHL next year, and clearly has the potential to be the best goaltender ever drafted and developed by the Blues.

3. Alexei Shkotov, RW, 20
Draft: 2nd round, 48th overall, 2002. Rating 8.0. Role: Scoring-line forward.

Shkotov has been a somewhat controversial figure in the organization ever since he was chosen in the 2002 draft. He was ranked only in the mid-20’s among European prospects by Central Scouting in that draft, mainly due to his size (5’10, 175), and because of questions about his commitment to defense and his ability to handle the physical play of the North American game. Compounding the issue was Shkotov’s refusal to come over to North America for the 2002-03 season, and the issues he had with the coaching staff at Moncton when he did arrive for the 2003-04 season. An early season trade to Quebec got the ship righted for Shkotov, however, and he became a dominant QMJHL player with 61 points totals in only 36 games with the Remparts. Shkotov will turn pro this season, and is expected to provide an offensive spark for Worcester. He will still have to prove that he can handle the physical play at that level, but there are few questions any more about his ability to produce in the North American game.

4. Konstantin Zakharov, LW, 19
Draft: 3rd round, 101st overall, 2003. Rating: 8.0. Role: Top line forward.

Zakharov is a player that has been overlooked because of the fact that his father was the coach of his junior team in Belarus, and he has also been somewhat overshadowed by a linemate Andrei Kostsitsyn who was a little bigger, a little faster, and more well known. The word was that Zakharov couldn’t produce on a team other than one run by his father, and that any success he had was due mainly to the presence of Kostsitsyn. Both myths were decisively put to rest this year. Zakharov came to Moncton of the QMJHL for the 2003-04 season and scored an impressive 33 goals as a rookie, without his father behind the bench and without Kostsitsyn at his side. He also was a leader for Moncton in the QMJHL playoffs, where they lost the championship round to Gatineau in seven games. He is still adapting to the North American style, and will also turn pro next season. Zakharov and Shkotov should be a nice one-two rookie scoring punch for the IceCats in 2004-05.

5. Carl Söderberg, C, 18
Draft: 2nd round, 49th overall, 2004. Rating: 7.5. Role: Top line center.

Carl Söderberg became a Blues’ fan in the mid-90’s when Brett Hull and Brendan Shanahan wore the ‘Note. He will soon have his chance to skate on the same ice as his boyhood heroes, and to fill the same role in St. Louis as Hull and Shanahan once filled — that of the big scorer who is counted on for big goals. At 6’3, 195 pounds, Söderberg has the size to play a Shanahan-type power game, and projects as a Mats Sundin-type of big, productive center for the Blues. The Malmö native lit up the Swedish junior league last year with 21 goals and 44 points in only 26 games, and also gave a good accounting of himself in 24 games at the Elite level. He should be a fixture on Sweden’s junior teams this year in international competition, and will play full-time in the Elitserien as well. He is a player that is at least three years away from full-time NHL duty.

6. Jason Bacashihua, G, 21
Draft: 1st round, 26th overall, 2001 (Dallas). Rating: 7.5. Role: Starting goaltender.

Acquired by trade on the eve of the 2004 Entry Draft, Bacashihua came to St. Louis with an eye towards being the Blues’ No. 1 goaltender in 2004-05. Forty-eight hours later, a trade for veteran Patrick Lalime threw a monkey wrench into that plan, but Bacashihua still has a shot at winning the NHL backup role in training camp. If he does, it will be a first in his career, as “Cash” has been a workhorse starter everywhere he’s been since his days in Junior “A.” He hasn’t appeared in fewer than 39 games in a season since 1999-00 season with Chicago (NAHL). With AHL veterans and fan favorites Curtis Sanford and Reinhard Divis still in the mix in the Blues’ organization, it may be tough sledding for Bacashihua to win a starting job in Worcester — or a backup role in St. Louis — unless he is consistently and constantly on top of his game.

7. Jay McClement, C, 21
Draft: 2nd round, 57th overall, 2001. Rating: 7.0. Role: Potential elite checking center.

Something of a “sleeper” pick by the Blues, McClement has established a reputation for defensive excellence in junior and as a first-year pro. He is very good on faceoffs, and his +6 was third highest on Worcester this season, behind only fellow rookie Sejna and free-agent revelation Mike Glumac. He kills penalties for the IceCats, and managed a team-high two shorthanded goals in 2003-04, along with three game-winners. And the best news for the Blues is, his offense is starting to come along as well. His skating and hockey sense are top-notch, and only a little more time and experience is needed before he gains more confidence in what he can do offensively at the pro level. The Blues are happy with where McClement is on his development curve right now, and expect him to progress in the 2004-05 season. One area of concern, however, is that he could stand to bulk up a little more. He’s playing at 6’3, 195 pounds, and could probably play at 210.

8. Konstantin Barulin, G, 19
Draft: 3rd round, 84th overall, 2003. Rating: 7.0. Role: Starting goaltender.

Once considered one of the weaker organizations in the league in terms of goaltending depth, the Blues now have almost an embarrassment of prospect riches at this position. In addition to Schwarz and Bacashihua, the Blues also have 2003 draftee Konstantin Barulin who is capable of emerging as a top-notch goaltender in the NHL. He was impressive in an early-season exhibition series that pitted a touring Russian squad against all-star teams from the three major junior leagues, but then was less impressive in the World Junior Championships later that year. Barulin also appeared in 11 games for Gazovik Tjumen, and had a nice 2.17 GAA and 6-4-1 record. He will play at least one more season in Russia, but the Blues would like to get him to North America and the AHL for the 2005-06 season.

9. Trevor Byrne, D, 24
Draft: 4th round, 143rd overall, 1999. Rating: 7.0. Role: No. 3 defenseman.

A durable player who didn’t miss a single start in his four years at Dartmouth College (ECAC), this big defenseman showed both his physical side and offensive upside in his rookie pro season. After bouncing between Worcester and Peoria (ECHL) for the first part of the year, Byrne arrived in Worcester to stay after Christmas, and was impressive. He appeared in 40 of the 45 games the ‘Cats played after New Years, notched five goals and 11 assists, and was a +3 with 12 PIM in that span. Byrne was a captain or alternate all four years at Dartmouth, and his leadership and steady play on defense have been welcome in Worcester. The Blues think he can get even bigger and stronger without losing any speed, and he will be a load for opposing forwards to handle if that prediction comes to pass.

10. David Backes, C/RW, 20
Draft: 2nd round, 62nd overall, 2003. Rating: 7.0. Role: Power forward.

Among the biggest of the Blues “elite” forward prospects at 6’2 and 200 pounds, Backes is seen as a potential power forward on the wing, and the heir apparent to Keith Tkachuk in that role for the Blues. He was very nearly a point-per-game player (37 points in 39 games) as a freshman at Minnesota State-Mankato last year, and showed his physical side as well with 66 PIM. Backes was a WCHA All-Rookie Team selection, one of only three players to play all 43 games for the Mavericks, and he will be counted on even more heavily this year after the departure of the team’s leading scorer (Shane Joseph) to graduation. His hockey sense is said to be outstanding, and the intensity is there as well, but his skating still needs a little more work before he can compete at a high pro level. His shortcomings in the skating area do not keep him from driving to the net and playing fearlessly and effectively in traffic, however, and he is especially effective at creating havoc in front of the opposition net. He will continue as a sophomore at Mankato in 2004-05.

11. Viktor Alexandrov, LW/C, 18
Draft: 3rd round, 83rd overall, 2004. Rating: 7.0. Role: Scoring-line forward.

A player with hockey in his blood, Alexandrov is the son of former Soviet-era standout Boris Alexandrov. He’s not the biggest player at 5’11, 183 pounds, but his skill level makes him a force to be reckoned with on the ice. Alexandrov is an explosive skater and playmaker who likes to drive to the net and can create at top speed, and his work ethic and determination to succeed are second to none. Alexandrov made a big move in the Central Scouting European rankings for the 2004 draft, going from 20th at mid-term to eighth in the final rankings, and at 18 years old already has two seasons under his belt in the Russian Superleague with Novokuznetsk. The Blues will be patient with him and allow him to develop in Russia for at least another year, with an eye towards having him bulk up a little in preparation for the North American grind.

12. Zack Fitz Gerald, D, 19
Draft: 3rd round, 88th overall, 2003. Rating: 7.0. Role: Defensive defenseman and physical presence.

Fitz Gerald isn’t the first player to be compared to a young Scott Stevens, but he may well be the player most deserving of the comparison. The 6’2, 210-pound blueliner is a leader and physical presence on a mediocre junior team in Seattle (WHL), a player who loves to be involved physically and lay the big hit on the opposition. His 609 minutes in penalties over the last three seasons support that contention, and also support his reputation as one of the most feared fighters in the WHL. Fitz Gerald’s offense (19 points in 59 games last year) doesn’t keep opposing coaches awake at night, and he still needs to develop his skating and lower-body strength, but his defense and physical nature has given his opponents “Fitz,” and will continue to do so for some time to come.

13. Alexandre Bolduc, C, 19
Draft: 4th round, 127th overall, 2003. Rating: 6.5. Role: Scoring-line center.

A victim of a numbers game at center in his draft year, Bolduc was nevertheless impressive enough to be a fourth round pick by the Blues in 2003. This is a player with all the tools — he’s a good skater with a good work ethic, fearless in traffic, good hockey sense, and decent size at 6’1, 185 pounds. His June birthdate makes him one of the younger players in his draft class, and he has progressed each year of this QMJHL career, going from six goals and 20 points as a 16-year-old in 2002 to 23 goals and 58 points last year as an 18-year-old. He’s averaged over 100 PIM per year in the last three seasons, and last year took a big step forward as a special-teams player with five goals on the power play, four shorthanded goals, and five game-winners. If he continues to progress this season as he has in past years, Bolduc should be ready to join the Blues’ stable of top-notch center prospects at Worcester in 2005-06.

14. Jon DiSalvatore, C, 23
Draft: 4th round, 104th overall, 2000 (San Jose). Rating: 6.5. Role: Depth forward with scoring upside.

Signed as a free agent by the Blues on June 30, 2004, DiSalvatore is considered an odds-on favorite to win a spot on one of the Blues’ bottom two lines in 2004-05. He managed 22 goals and 46 points in 70 games with Cleveland (AHL) last season, and the Blues can certainly use a player at the NHL level who is capable of that kind of production. At 6’1, 180 pounds, DiSalvatore is big enough to handle himself on a checking line in the NHL, and those who saw him play in the San Jose organization speak highly of his skills and work ethic.

15. Colin Hemingway, RW, 24
Draft: 8th round, 221st overall, 1999. Rating: 6.5. Role: Scoring-line forward.

There were some off-ice issues that interfered with Hemingway’s progress this season, but when on the ice, he displayed flashes of the talent that had the 6’1, 195-pound winger ranked among the Blues’ very best prospects as recently as last year. Two goals in 13 games at Worcester were respectable enough for a rookie, but Hemingway really shone in Peoria, where he struck for 20 goals, 44 points, and a +29 in just 36 games. There are still some character and maturity issues to be addressed with Hemingway, but he has shown in college, and now in the pros, that he can produce at a high level when called upon.

16. Robin Jonsson, D, 20
Draft: 4th round, 120th overall, 2002. Rating: 6.5. Role: Two-way defenseman.

The big story where Jonsson is concerned has been his battle with, and victory over, cancer as an 18-year-old. After losing almost a full season in 2002-03 to the disease, Jonsson came back last year and split time between Farjestad of the SEL and Böförs of the second league. Jonsson has decent size at 6’2, 195 pounds, and is a right-handed shot from the point, which makes him a rare and valued commodity in the Blues’ organization. He has shown that he can score, and quarterback a power play, at the second-division level. This season’s performance in the SEL will tell the tale about Jonsson’s readiness to come over and try the North American game with the Blues, as countryman Christian Backman did two years ago.

17. Juha-Matti Aaltonen, LW, 19
Draft: 9th round, 284th overall, 2003. Rating: 6.5. Role: Scoring-line winger.

Juha-Matti Aaltonen is all about scoring goals. In the last two seasons with Kärpät’s junior team in Finland, Aaltonen has struck for a total of 49 goals, and a +34, in 66 games. He’s also had a cup of coffee with the senior squad, and is expected to stick around full-time this year. He’s not big at 5’11, 175 pounds, but is said to be a good skater, and has a goal-scorer’s mentality. Kärpät was the top team in the SM-Liiga last year, limiting Aaltonen’s opportunities to break into the lineup as a teenager, but his performance in the junior league (30 goals and 45 points in 32 games last year) should open some doors for him.

18. Dennis Wideman, D, 21
Draft: 8th round, 241st overall, 2002 (Buffalo). Rating: 6.5. Role: Two-way defenseman and power play quarterback.

Wideman was signed as a free agent by the Blues on June 30, 2004 after Buffalo failed to come to terms with him. The offensive skills of the 6’0, 200-pound blueliner are evident from his 24-41-65 totals in 60 games last year with London of the OHL, and he was a phenomenal +52 as well for the high-flying Knights. These numbers, along with the 11 power play goals he scored and his 85 minutes of penalty time, were enough to make him runner-up to Chicago draftee James Wisniewski for the OHL’s Defenseman of the Year, and a second-team CHL All-Star, in 2003-04. His right-handed shot and offensive skills make him the latest in a long line of players who will have a go at filling the big skates of Hall of Famer Al MacInnis as the trigger man on the Blues’ power play.

19. Roman Polak, D, 18
Draft: 6th round, 180th overall, 2004. Rating: 6.5. Role: Defensive defenseman.

Though he’ll never be confused with Bobby Orr or Sandis Ozolinsh as a creator of offense from the blueline, Polak has the hockey sense and skill to be an effective passer and playmaker. This ability, along with his size (6’1, 198), strength, and steadiness on defense, opens the door for Polak to play a lot, and in all situations — even-strength, shorthanded and on the power play. He is a physical player who likes to hit, and he will get his chance to do lots of that with Kootenay of the WHL next year, where he will take his first stab at the North American game.

20. Michal Birner, C, 18
Draft: 4th round, 116th overall, 2004. Rating: 6.5. Role: Depth center with scoring upside.

Another 2004 draftee who will come to North America next season, Birner will be skating for Barrie of the OHL. There, he will try to duplicate the solid season he had with Slavia Praha’s junior squad last year, where he scored 60 points with a chippy 112 PIM in 55 games. A very good skater with an outstanding work ethic, Birner is able to create offense while moving at top speed, and in traffic. On the downside, he has a tendency to play on the periphery more often than he should, and needs to drive to the net more consistently, but the skill level and determination to succeed will keep him among the Blues’ top prospects for some time to come.

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