Blues top 20 prospects

By Kyle McMahon

The recent 2006 Entry Draft was successful for the St. Louis Blues and four of the newly-drafted prospects move into the top 20. Heading that list of course is top selection Erik Johnson, who is far and away the Blues’ best prospect.

The Blues prospect pool fairly heavy on goaltenders, with five of them making their way into the top 20. They are thin on defense, however, with only three blue-liners after Johnson making the cut. The pool is still not what one would consider well-stocked, but the recent draft clearly bolstered it.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Erik Johnson, D
2. T.J. Oshie, C
3. Marek Schwarz, G
4. Patrik Berglund, C
5. Timofei Shishkanov, LW
6. Scott Jackson, D
7. Jason Bacashihua, G
8. Lee Stempniak, RW
9. Tomas Kana, C
10. Carl Soderberg, C
11. David Backes, C
12. Ben Bishop, G
13. Alexei Shkotov, RW
14. Nikolai Lemtyugov, RW
15. Konstantin Barulin, G
16. Michal Birner, C
17. Juha-Matti Aaltonen, LW
18. Jeff Woywitka, D
19. Chris Beckford-Tseu, G
20. Jonas Junland, D

1. Erik Johnson, D, 9.0 B
Acquired: 1st Round, 1st Overall, 2006

When the Blues selected Erik Johnson with the top pick in the most recent draft, he instantly became their top prospect due to his superb skill set and very solid all-around game. Johnson is projected to be a top-pairing two-way defenseman who can rush the puck up ice with his excellent stickhandling and passing skills as well as his smooth skating stride. He is reliable in his own zone, using his 6’4 frame to knock forwards off the puck and keep traffic clear around his own goal. The Blues addressed their lack of a bona fide top prospect on their back end when they selected the Minnesota native, and they will look to Johnson to anchor the defense relatively soon.

Johnson played the 2005-06 season with the US National Team Development Program, where he fared well, especially at the World Junior Championship, which brought him to the forefront in the eyes of scouts. Some analysts thought perhaps Johnson would jump straight into the NHL for the 2006-07 season, but he will go through with his original plan of playing close to home with the University of Minnesota for the upcoming campaign. It is likely he will jump to the pros after this season with the Golden Gophers.

2. T.J. Oshie, C, 8.0 C
Acquired: 1st Round, 24th Overall, 2005

Another American-trained player, T.J. Oshie sits second on the list of Blues prospects. Boasting a supreme offensive upside, the centerman is easily the most promising forward prospect. Oshie is very effective one-on-one thanks to his soft hands and quickness with the puck. A pure goal scorer, he is considered to have a good shot, and uses his snappy release to victimize opposing goaltenders. The Blues have suffered from a shortage of skilled forwards recently, but Oshie should help to remedy that problem once he graduates to the professional ranks.

When the Blues took Oshie late in the first round there were some critics who felt he went too high, citing some holes in his game and his lack of experience against tough competition. But the young center may have silenced some of the doubters with a strong freshman campaign at the University of North Dakota. Oshie found the back of the net 24 times (nine game-winning goals) and added 21 assists for 45 points. That point total placed him second amongst Fighting Sioux scorers, and ranked second in all the NCAA amongst freshmen. Oshie needs to continue filling the net and better develop the non-offensive aspects of his game to fulfill his potential as a top-six forward in the NHL.

3. Marek Schwarz, G, 8.0 C
Acquired: 1st Round, 17th Overall, 2004

Marek Schwarz is the highest rated Blues prospect between the pipes. At 6’0 tall and weighing in at 180 pounds, Schwarz has a butterfly style of goaltending. He is fairly sound technically, possessing a sharp glove hand and plays his angles well. There are some weaknesses in the skill aspects of his game, notably his stickhandling and skating skills, but these can be corrected with practice.

After playing 2004-05 in the WHL with the Vancouver Giants, Schwarz decided to return to his native Czech Republic to play in the Czech senior league. He hit a bit of a snag with Sparta Prague, only appearing in 15 games, but his performance was very solid in those limited appearances, as he posted a 2.57 GAA and a .920 save percentage. Goaltenders traditionally take longer to reach NHL-readiness, so Schwarz is still two or three years away from Missouri. But steady improvement should see him eventually reach the NHL after some due time in the minors, where St. Louis will probably place him after signing him to an entry-level contract.

4. Patrik Berglund, C, 7.5 B
Acquired: 1st Round, 25th Overall, 2006

Forward Patrik Berglund was St. Louis’ second first round choice in the 2006 draft, and provides the Blues with another offensive talent waiting in the wings. Berglund is blessed with a sturdy 6’4 frame, which in addition to his crafty stickhandling, enables him to bull his way past defenders en route to the goal. This gives him the tools to become a power forward one day in the NHL, but he is sometimes guilty of not backchecking as hard as he should and his play can be inconsistent.

The 2005-06 season was a strong campaign for the young Swedish center. He lit it up in the Swedish under-20 league with 17 goals and 29 points in 27 games, and also appeared in 21 games with the senior Vasteras team, scoring three goals. In six games with the national team at the World Junior Championship, Berglund continued his fine play and recorded four goals. If Berglund builds upon his 2005-06 season with another strong year in Sweden, he’ll be in good position, though Berglund himself has acknowledged it could be a few years yet before he decides to come over to North America.

5. Timofei Shishkanov, LW, 7.5 D
Acquired: trade with Nashville, 2006

A right-shooting left winger, Timofei Shishkanov moved from the Nashville prospect list to No. 5 in the Blues organization after being swapped for Mike Sillinger. The Moscow, Russia native is the highest-ranked prospect with NHL experience, as he has suited up for 24 big league games. Twenty-two of those contests came with the Blues after he was traded, and they saw Shishkanov score three goals and five points. He spent the rest of the 2005-06 campaign in the American Hockey League with Milwaukee and Peoria, totaling 17 goals and 17 assists in 58 games played.

Shishkanov bases his offensive game around his quick skating stride. His game is tailored to the “new” NHL, which favors speed and skill, so it was expected that the Blues would give him plenty of opportunity to succeed this upcoming season. At 23 years old, it seemed to be the time for Shishkanov to have a breakout season and fulfill the potential that made him the 33rd overall pick in the 2001 NHL Draft, but the winger recently decided to play the 2006-07 season in Russia.

6. Scott Jackson, D, 7.0 C
Acquired: 2nd Round, 37th Overall, 2005

Until Johnson arrived on the scene, Scott Jackson was St. Louis’ top ranked defensive prospect. He is a big blue-liner at 6’4, 200 pounds. He has the ability to play tough and physical, but sometimes doesn’t throw as many hits as someone of his stature would be expected to. Jackson has put up decent offensive numbers in his seasons with Seattle of the WHL, a byproduct of his good passing skills and heavy shot from the point, though his skating could use improvement. Generally, Jackson plays a reasonably sound and simple game in his own end.

The 2005-06 season saw the defenseman again with the Thunderbirds. His 57 games in Seattle saw decent production, with 26 points, but his defensive and physical game needs to improve before he gets a look at the NHL level. The 2006-07 year will be Jackson’s junior finale, after which he will probably move to the AHL to continue his progression.

7. Jason Bacashihua, G, 6.5 C
Acquired: trade with Dallas, 2004

Due to the numerous injuries sustained by Blues goaltenders over the course of the 2005-06 season, the 23-year-old Bacashihua was given an opportunity to prove himself in the NHL in the latter part of the year. He performed adequately in the Blues’ cage, with a 3.23 GAA, and a respectable .899 save percentage, despite what a 4-10-1 record may suggest. In addition to his debut NHL appearance, the stopper appeared in 15 AHL games with Peoria, posting an impressive 9-4 record to go along with his 2.63 GAA and .903 save percentage.

Bacashihua is a natural talent at the position, boasting very rapid reflexes, and is very agile around the crease. He has been reputed as a clutch goalie throughout his pro career in the AHL, but the drawback has been the tendency to let in weak goals in less important games. His consistency needs to improve before he becomes an NHL regular. With the Blues free-agent signing of Manny Legace, at appears as though Bacashihua will battle with Curtis Sanford for the back-up job when training camp starts in September. Sanford has a little more experience and put up slightly better numbers, however Bacashihua is three years younger and possesses more upside, so a strong camp could earn him a spot on the roster to start the season.

8. Lee Stempniak, RW, 6.5 C
Acquired: 5th Round, 148th Overall, 2003

After a very successful college career at Dartmouth, which saw him in the running for the 2005 Hobey Baker award, Stempniak made his pro debut in 2005-06 and did not disappoint. He put up eight goals and 15 points in 26 American League games, but spent the majority of the season in the NHL with St. Louis. By the end of the year he was one of the go-to players in the Blues’ depleted line-up, and finished off an impressive rookie campaign with 14 goals and 27 points. He also finished with a plus/minus rating of -10, but on the last place Blues that was third-best amongst regulars.

Stempniak is a good all-around player. He has a good offensive touch, but is versatile enough to be used in a variety of situations. He may be a little undersized, but makes up for that through hard work and a strong skating stride. The West Seneca, New York native will come to training camp looking to secure his place as a regular on the second or third line. Stempniak will hope to build off last year’s success and avoid the sophomore jinx, as he figures to be an important component in the Blues’ rebuilding process.

9. Tomas Kana, C, 7.0 C
Acquired: 2nd Round, 31st Overall, 2006

Tomas Kana makes his debut on the prospects list this year after the Blues selected him with the first pick in the second round this past June. What makes Kana appealing is his top notch work ethic and his willingness to battle along the boards and in the corners for the puck. He is a feisty forechecker, and is also a valuable asset on the penalty kill. The Czech center is also capable of displaying an offensive touch with his slick passing and quick shot. There has been some question about whether the 6’0 Kana will be big enough to excel in a grinder’s role, but at only 18 years of age, there is plenty of time to grow taller and add bulk.

The Blues drafted Kana out of Vitkovice in the Czech Republic, where he spent the 2005-06 season. Despite being a boy playing against men, the gritty pivot was not at all out of place. In 42 games played he registered five goals and 14 total points, while displaying the physical aspect of his game in the form of 50 penalty minutes. Kana will play junior in Canada this year after being drafted into the OHL by Owen Sound.

10. Carl Soderberg, C, 7.5 C
Acquired: 2nd Round, 49th Overall, 2004

Swede Carl Soderberg is the fourth-rated center in the Blues’ system. His game concentrates mainly on scoring goals and setting them up. He blends size (6’3, 198 pounds) with an excellent skill set. Soderberg’s skating is both fast and powerful which allows him to push past opponents with ease on his way into the attacking zone. He has a good idea of when he should pass the puck off or take the shot himself, all of which makes him a smart and dangerous offensive threat, and a potential second line forward down the road.

Soderberg played the 2005-06 season with Malmo in the Allsvenskan in Sweden. It was a breakout offensive year for the 20-year-old center, as he averaged a point per game, with 15 goals and 24 assists in his 39 games played. In the past his defensive game had come under some scrutiny, however he closed out the regular season with a +24 rating, so clearly he has become more responsible in his own zone. Soderberg came up big in the playoffs as well, with five goals and three assists in Malmo’s ten post-season contests. He has recently signed an entry-level deal with St. Louis, so it is probable that he will play the upcoming campaign in Peoria of the AHL.

11. David Backes, C, 7.0 C
Acquired: 2nd Round, 62nd Overall, 2003

David Backes, a big playmaking center, could be St. Louis’ most NHL-ready prospect who has not yet played a game in the world’s top league. Backes enjoyed a productive college career at Minnesota State – Mankato, tallying 29 assists and 42 points in his final year, 2005-06. After graduating the Blues brought him to Peoria for 12 games late in the season, and saw him make the transition to the pros with great ease, scoring five goals and five assists in his brief debut.

While Backes’ size may give him the potential to become a power forward type, he has typically shown himself to be more of a playmaker. Though he is not a heavy hitter, his size allows him plenty of space to generate plays and maintain possession of the puck. At the Blues’ summer prospect camp, all accounts had Backes rising above the other forwards present, which could give him the inside track at training camp in the fall. It is tough to predict where the Blues will slot Backes, who is capable of shifting to the wing, for the 2006-07 season. A strong camp could give him an outside shot of playing a more prominent scoring role with the Blues, though it is more likely they would let him get his feet wet on the fourth line, and of course he could return to Peoria where he would be one of the Rivermen’s top players.

12. Ben Bishop, G, 7.5 C
Acquired: 3rd Round, 85th Overall, 2005

One of several goaltenders on the top 20, Ben Bishop has made a noticeable jump of four places in the rankings. This was thanks to an impressive freshman campaign at the University of Maine, that saw Bishop go 21-7-2, record a GAA of 2.22 and post a .908 save percentage. The Black Bears rode their young netminder all the way to the Frozen Four before losing out to Wisconsin.

Standing tall at 6’5, Bishop gives shooters very little room to beat him by taking up so much space in the goal. He has surprising agility for a big man, noted for his good lateral movement across the crease and quick glove hand. His rebound control is stellar and he utilizes his long reach to poke check the puck away from shooters who come in too close to the crease. All of these characteristics combined with an outstanding start to his college career gives Bishop the makings of a future NHL goaltender. The Blues have a logjam in their net at the time being, so there is no need to rush him along to the pros. Expect Bishop to play out his college eligibility at Maine, and sign a contract in St. Louis in around three years time.

13. Alexei Shkotov, RW, 7.5 D
Acquired: 2nd Round, 48th Overall, 2002

Once a highly-rated prospect within the Blues organization, Shkotov has watched his stock drop off. He was drafted fairly high by St. Louis in 2002, but has seen his development stunted by playing sub-par in his native Russia and not committing to playing in North America. Shkotov had a stint in the AHL with Worcester in 2004-05, and was reasonably productive with 12 points in 23 games, but he has gone back to Russia. He played in the Russian Super League in 2005-06 with Khimik Mytischy scoring 16 points in 32 games, certainly not bad, but far from eye-popping for a man of his talent.

Like many European prospects, Shkotov centers his game on speed and passing ability. His small 5’9 size can be a hindrance, but also makes him an agile and shifty stickhandler and playmaker. Sometimes the winger is seen as too much of an individualist, and that may not sit so well in a North American coaching system, but his skill is undeniable. Shkotov has the talent to one day become a top-six forward in the NHL, but he must quickly get his career back on track by coming to North America or producing better in Russia.

14. Nikolai Lemtyugov, RW, 7.0 C
Acquired: 7th Round, 219th Overall, 2005

The Blues may have found a diamond in the rough when Nikolai Lemtyugov was still available late in the 2005 draft. The speedy Russian has loads of skill, and displays the attributes that could make him an ideal player for the current style of NHL hockey. In addition to his offensive prowess, he is not a player who will back down physically either, despite what his smallish 6’0, 176-pound frame may suggest.

Lemtyugov’s 2005-06 season was spent in the Russian Super League with CSKA Moscow. He emerged on the score-sheet with nine goals to go along with 11 helpers in 37 games with his club, and also posted a +10 rating. He played with the Russian entry that won a silver medal at the World Junior Championships, and was a key contributor with four goals in six games. The slick wingman will play in Russia again for the 2006-07 season, this time with Severstal after a trade away from CSKA. Lemtyugov’s high skill level and upside as a scoring forward will have the Blues watching him closely, but he is still a few years away from being ready for the NHL.

15. Konstantin Barulin, G, 6.0 C
Acquired: 3rd Round, 84th Overall, 2003

Another goaltender appears at No. 15 for the Blues. Russian Konstantin Barulin moves up a couple of slots after a very solid season in Russia with the Spartak Moscow club. Barulin appeared in 36 games with Spartak and put up a superb .915 save percentage with a GAA of 2.14. This was a good stepping stone year, as the goalie set a personal high in games played.

Barulin is said to rely on his outstanding athletic ability to make saves. He has decent size and uses his long legs to make pad saves. His movement around the net very good, enabling him to initiate breakout plays by emerging from the crease to play the puck. Barulin does not play stand up or butterfly style, rather he is a hybrid goaltender. The multitude of prospective netminders ahead of him on the Blues’ depth chart at the time being means that it will still be a few years yet before Barulin jumps over to North America, but he should continue to improve in Europe with the quality of play in Russia increasing. He’ll have to do it somewhere other than Spartak, however, which just announced it is closing up shop.

16. Michal Birner, C, 7.0 C
Acquired: 4th Round, 116th Overall, 2004

Czech center Michal Birner relies on his hard work and skating ability to create offense. He is also a capable stickhandler and fires crisp passes to set up teammates for goals. Not overly big at only 6’0 tall, Birner sometimes tends to avoid congestion and physical play too often, though he is able to use his skill to control the puck in tight areas if he chooses to. His defensive zone coverage leaves something to be desired, but he is far from a liability thanks to his on-ice smarts.

Birner finished off his junior career in the OHL with Saginaw after coming to Canada from the Czech Republic. He played two years of Canadian junior, with 2005-06 being his most successful season. The center scored 31 goals and 85 total points with the Spirit and also showed a more physical edge to his game in the form of 91 penalty minutes. He also earned some time on special teams this past year. The 20-year-old Birner has signed an entry-level deal with the Blues and will probably spend the upcoming season in the minor leagues. Down the road he could take a run at a roster spot with the big club.

17. Juha-Matti Aaltonen, LW, 7.0 D
Acquired: 9th Round, 284th Overall, 2003

Finnish forward Juha-Matti Aaltonen is an offensive-minded player capable of scoring goals in abundance. Flaws in Aaltonen’s overall game saw him slip so low in the draft, but his pure skill could end up making him a late steal. His stickhandling and repertoire of moves makes him a danger with the puck when closing in on opposing defenders and goalies. The downside of Aaltonen’s game is in his defensive shortcomings. He tends to be one-dimensional and plays too soft at times. He needs to become better in these areas of concern.

Aaltonen has spent his entire career in the Karpat Oulu organization in Finland. He moved to the senior team for the 2005-06 season, and impressed as a rookie in Finland’s top league. In 50 games he bagged 13 goals and scored 25 points in all. He will remain in Finland for the 2006-07 season, after which the Blues may try to sign him. His talent gives him the possibility of being an NHL player down the road, but until he manages to improve the other aspects of his game he is a long way from St. Louis.

18. Jeff Woywitka, D, 7.0 D
Acquired: trade with Edmonton, 2005

Jeff Woywitka is one of just four top 20 Blues prospects on defense, and the only one with NHL experience. Last year was split between Peoria in the AHL and the Blues. In 53 games with the Rivermen, Woywitka registered 15 points and totaled 58 penalty minutes, also appearing in four playoff games. When up with St. Louis, Woywitka was used sparingly in 26 appearances, averaging around ten minutes of ice time per game. He chipped in two assists with 25 PIM.

Woywitka has decent size on the blueline and there is a physical component to his game. He is a two-way style defender, though has focused more on defense in the early stages of his professional career. His skating and puckmoving abilities are adequate, while his booming shot makes him useable on the point on the power play. Twenty-six NHL games were a step in the right direction, but the Blues are hoping for a little more from one of the players they traded Chris Pronger for. Woywitka is still young enough to evolve into the top-four defenseman he was expected to be when drafted, but right now a sixth or seventh defenseman seems to be about where his career headed.

19. Chris Beckford-Tseu, G, 7.0 C
Acquired: 5th Round, 159th Overall, 2003

Yet another goaltender makes his way onto the list, with Canadian ‘keeper Chris Beckford-Tseu at No. 19. He had an outstanding season in the ECHL, which also saw some time spent in the AHL. While up in Peoria for 16 games, Beckford-Tseu was mediocre with an .887 save percentage and a 3.01 GAA, but was terrific in the ECHL with the Alaska Aces. He posted a stellar 1.87 GAA to go along with his .929 save percentage and incredible record of 16-1-2. Most importantly, he helped lead the Blues affiliate to the league championship.

Beckford-Tseu stands tall in the goal at 6’3 which minimizes the area of net that shooters have to fire at. He is a reflex goaltender who is usually in good position to face the shooter, though he could use his size more to his advantage by playing further out of his net. Beckford-Tseu’s 2005-06 season was outstanding, but he’ll need to bring that to the AHL level. With number of other goaltenders in the Blues’ system fighting for spots, he has a long road ahead of him if he’s to make it to the NHL.

20. Jonus Junland, D, 6.5 C
Acquired: 3rd Round, 64th Overall, 2006

Recently drafted Swedish defenseman Jonus Junland rounds out the Blues’ top 20 prospects. He is an offensive-minded blue-liner, strong in all facets with a hard and accurate shot, is strong on his skates, and can pass and stickhandle well. Like many young point-producing defensemen, Junland’s defensive game is lacking and hurried at times. He also needs to throw his weight around a little more, but as he gains experience these areas should correct themselves.

Junland spent the majority of the 2005-06 season with the Linkoping under-20 side. He scored 17 goals and 23 assists for 40 points in 32 games, excellent totals for anybody, let alone a defenseman. He also played four games with Linkoping’s SEL squad, where he is expected to spend the 2006-07 season. As an item of interest, Junland also played a single game with the under-18 team, and unbelievably scored five times. For the time being Junland will hone his craft in his native Sweden, and with improvements in his own zone play, he definitely has a shot at being an NHL defenseman in several years.

Missing the Cut

Nicholas Drazenovic, C, 7.0 D

Placed at 15th on the list the last time around, Drazenovic just missed the cut this time around. He is a smallish centerman who possesses good offensive skill with great stickhandling ability. Last year in Prince George of the WHL, Drazenovic scored 30 times and added 33 assists in 71 contests. He will need to bulk up to be given an opportunity to carry his scoring touch to the pros.

Viktor Alexandrov, RW, 7.0 D

Alexandrov is a skilled offensive player with a quick stride to go along with his good hockey sense. He plays tougher than his 5’11 body might suggest, but he tends to be overpowered by larger defenders. Alexandrov played 2005-06 with SKA St. Petersburg in the Russian league, scoring four goals and 11 points. Those offensive numbers need to grow if he is ever going to see the NHL.

Reto Berra, G, 6.0 C

Swiss goaltender Reto Berra is the youngest of the many prospective Blues goaltenders. In accordance with his size at 6’4, he typically plays the butterfly style of netminding, with both a quick glove hand and leg movement being his strengths. Berra played well enough in the Swiss league, mainly with GCK Lions, in 2005-06, but his performance at the World Junior Championship was his season highlight. The Swiss goaltender recorded a 2.34 GAA with an excellent .910 save percentage. Berra will continue to develop in Switzerland in 2006-07. He is still at least a few years away from North America, but has the talent to one day find himself competing for a job in the NHL.

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