Blues training camp preview

By Kyle McMahon

The St. Louis Blues open training camp for their 39th NHL season on Sept. 15. Preceding the main camp, Blues prospects are taking part in a tournament against prospects of several other teams in Traverse City, Michigan.

After finishing last season in the Western Conference basement, the Blues were quite active on the free agent market, but there are still some spots up for grabs for both prospects coming into their first camp and those who already have professional experience.

Arrivals and departures

As you would expect with a rebuilding team like St. Louis, the influx of new talent is much more noticeable than any prospects cut loose. The Blues signed several top prospects this summer, including top-ranked goaltender Marek Schwarz, who played the 2005-06 season in the Czech Republic, as well as center Carl Soderberg who had 39 points in 39 games with Swedish club Malmo. Another highly-rated prospect, collegian David Backes, was signed last spring and fared well in a handful of games with the Peoria Rivermen, who will once again will serve as the Blues’ AHL affiliate.

Also under contract for the first time is OHL graduate Michal Birner, as well as Czech defender Roman Polak. After spending the 2005-06 season in Russia, talented center Alexei Shkotov has returned to North America as well. There are also a number of players who will be attending the prospect camp on free agent tryouts who could potentially receive contract offers if they perform well.

It was expected that Russian prospect >Timofei Shishkanov, who was acquired from the Nashville Predators last season, would be in the mix for a roster spot after appearing in 22 games with the Blues last season. But instead he signed a deal to play in back Russia for the 2006-07 season.

Available roster spots

At center, Doug Weight, Petr Cajanek, Jay McClement, and utility-man Ryan Johnson look to have the top four spots somewhat secure. But since many teams carry five centermen on the roster, there should be one more spot up for grabs. The frontrunner amongst incoming prospects is the offensively talented Soderberg. If the Blues decide to use a veteran to fill that role (Trent Whitfield would be the leading candidate at this point), Soderberg should see lots of ice time in the AHL, which would probably be more beneficial to his development than fourth line duty in the NHL.

On the wing, there should be at least a couple of opportunities, especially for Birner and Backes. Those two could find themselves on the third or fourth lines if they step up and have strong training camps. It should also be noted that the aforementioned have experience playing at center, so a shift to that position is entirely possible. Top-ten prospect Lee Stempniak is all but assured a spot after his 14-goal, 27-point rookie campaign. The youngsters will battle against the likes of Vladimir Orzagh and Mike Glumac for their spot in the NHL. If they fail to crack the opening day roster, they will be go-to guys in Peoria and likely end up being recalled to the big club at one time or another when injuries occur. Wingers Konstantin Zakharov and DJ King will both be trying to make an impression after spending last year in the minors.

On the back end, the top four are set with Eric Brewer, Barret Jackman, Jay McKee, and Christian Backman, but after that it’s up in the air. Veterans Matt Walker and Bryce Salvador will be in the mix, as will Dennis Wideman. Jeff Woywitka is the highest-rated Blues prospect that will be fighting for a job on defense, and head coach Mike Kitchen and the Blues brass would love a breakout camp from him. Doug Lynch will also be given a chance to show what he can do in the preseason, but his stock has dropped since being acquired from Edmonton prior to the 2005-06 season, so his likely destination is back in Peoria.

The battle between the pipes could prove to be the most interesting. Free agent pickup Manny Legace is the assumed No. 1 at this point, rather it is a question of who will be his backup. In addition to veteran Curtis Sanford, the Blues will have three prospects in the mix. Marek Schwarz is in his first training camp and should gain some valuable experience, but very few young goaltenders can make the jump to the NHL at age 20. Chris Beckford-Tseu had an outstanding 2005-06 campaign with Alaska of the ECHL, but needs to show the same promise in Peoria before he can start thinking about the NHL. That leaves Jason Bacashihua. He will turn 24 years old during training camp, so now is the time to make his move. Last season was a good start with 19 appearances in the Blues’ net, and now he will have the opportunity to duel with Sanford for a permanent NHL roster spot.

Prospect camp

The prospect tournament in Traverse City will give the Blues coaching staff a sneak peek at what some of the prospects coming to regular training camp might be capable of, as well as a chance to find a diamond in the rough in the form of a free agent invitee. There are also several skaters who will almost certainly be sent back to juniors, but will still be watched carefully for the future potential. Highly-ranked defenseman Scott Jackson is the most prominent of these.

Prospect camp roster

Centers: Carl Soderberg, Alexei Shkotov, Nicholas Drazenovic, Casey Lee (free agent tryout)

Wingers: David Backes, Michal Birner, Konstantin Zakharov, Ryan Reaves, David Fredriksson, Evgeny Skachkov, Kevin Croxton (free agent tryout), Jordan Clendenning (free agent tryout), Ryan MacMurchy (former Blues prospect, but trying out as a free agent after not being offered a contract)

Defensemen: Roman Polak, Scott Jackson, Zack Fitzgerald, Mike Gauthier, Alexander Hellstrom, Ryan Wilson (free agent tryout), Steven Later (free agent tryout)

Goaltenders: Marek Schwarz, Reto Berra

Blues preseason schedule

Sept. 19: @ Chicago
Sept. 21: @ Minnesota
Sept. 23: @ Atlanta
Sept. 24: vs Atlanta
Sept. 27: vs Chicago
Sept. 28: vs Minnesota

The Blues open the regular season Oct. 5 in San Jose. Their home opener is Oct. 12 when Boston comes to town.

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