Blues 2005 draft preview

By Ryan Garner

Blues Top 10 Prospects

1.Marek Schwarz, G
2.Jason Bacashihua, G
3.Jay McClement, C
4.Alexei Shkotov, RW
5.David Backes, C
6.Peter Sejna, LW
7.Carl Soderberg, C
8.Konstantin Zakharov, LW
9.Viktor Alexandrov, RW
10.Roman Polak, D

Team Needs

The St. Louis Blues’ first priority is scoring help up front. The Blues were 21st in the NHL with 191 goals during the 2003-04 season, and that number should drop this year because of salary cap restrictions. With Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk or Pavol Demitra each taking up huge chunks of payroll, it remains to be seen which of them will be leaving St. Louis. Unrestricted free agent Demitra is the most likely to go, and the 58 points he put up during the last NHL season will be hard to replace. After the big three, talent at the forward position drops off considerably, and the Blues are a team with too many grinders, and not enough speedy, talented wingers. This was obvious during the 2004 playoffs against San Jose, as they were victimized by the Sharks’ speed and relentless forecheck.

The team could use a couple of depth defensemen to fill holes left by Al MacInnis’ possible retirement and insure themselves against injuries. Chris Pronger could stick around, after being qualified a $7.2 million contract, but the defensive corps needs to get younger and more mobile.

Another issue for the Blues will be their goaltending situation. Patrick Lalime will step in as a reliable starter, but there’s a lot of speculation concerning who his backup will be. Expect either Reinhard Divis or Curtis Sanford to fill the role, but both are unproven at the NHL level.

Organizational Strengths

Only one NHL club has netminders taking up the top two positions in their top 20 prospects list, and it’s the Blues. After seeing seven different goaltenders start games for them over the past two seasons, St. Louis took dramatic steps to shore up their goaltending situation last summer. They acquired Jason Bacashihua in exchange for Shawn Belle on June 24, 2004. Then only two days later, the Blues drafted Marek Schwarz with the 17th overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

Schwarz played very well for the Vancouver Giants of the WHL last season, and took home the award for best goaltender at the 2005 World Junior Championships. Bacashihua struggled early on for Worcester in 2004-05, but came on strong at the end of they year. These two talented prospects provide the club with a solid one-two punch and should battle each other for the starting job in a couple years.

St. Louis also has some good depth at center and on the wings. Jay McClement showed dramatic improvement in his second full season with the Worcester Ice Cats last season, and he should battle for an NHL job at training camp in the fall. Alexei Shkotov is a talented winger with speed to burn. The undersized Russian has put up solid numbers wherever he’s played, and he’s a couple years from regular NHL duty. David Backes is a rugged center, and he’s become a leader for Minnesota State after two years with the club. The Blues are excited about the big pivot’s potential, and his numbers should continue to improve this year.

Organizational Weaknesses

The Blues biggest knock is that they lack elite, NHL-caliber talent. The franchise has been stuck in rut, consistently finishing fourth or fifth in the west, and then being dispatched early in the playoffs. This has prevented them from picking up any can’t-miss prospects at the draft, and the Blues talent has aged without making any significant improvement. A number of unsuccessful trips to the draft have left St. Louis with a relatively weak prospect system, and there are few youngsters to fill the roster spots left by the departure of aging veterans.

The club’s biggest positional weakness may be their defensive prospects, especially after Shawn Belle was dealt to Dallas for Bacashihua. Czech prospect Roman Polak is currently the team’s top defensive prospect, but he’s only 19 and still getting accustomed to the North American game. The Blues expect him to be a good one, but Polak is years away from challenging for a roster spot in the NHL. The new collective bargaining agreement will definitely limit the team’s ability to draw superstars with lucrative contracts, and it may result in the end of the Blues 25-season streak of qualifying for postseason play. The rebuilding process will require an infusion of young talent if the Blues hope to compete with the top clubs in the west.

Draft Tendencies

St. Louis has always been a club that takes a lot of European players, looking for skill and finesse to even out their rough-and-tumble lineup. In 2002 the Blues selected nine players, with four of them playing in European leagues. Director of Amateur Scouting Jarmo Kekalainen’s first draft with the Blues occurred in 2003. He may have been a little reserved, with four of the club’s 12 selections coming from Europe. However, in 2004 Kekalainen’s impact on the decision-making process was obvious. Of the Blues eight selections, seven of them were drafted from European leagues.

Always unafraid to select a skilled player surrounded by question marks or speculation, the Blues have shown a tendency over the past five years to draft based on their immediate needs. Both Barret Jackman and Shawn Belle faced questions concerning their skating ability and mobility, but St. Louis didn’t let it affect their decision in either case. Expect them to follow that trend in 2005 by selecting a speedy forward with loads of offensive skill that may have fallen down the draft board.

Player most likely to be taken with first selection (Hockey’s Future staff mock result): Andrew Cogliano, C, OHA St. Mike’s Buzzers

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