Blues European prospect review

By Kyle McMahon

The St. Louis Blues are loaded with prospects playing outside of North America. Most of their higher-end prospects are playing in Sweden, while they also have a large concentration in Russia. They are quite heavy on forwards, with just a few defensemen and goaltenders.

Patrik Berglund, C – Vasteras (Sweden-2)
Drafted: 25th Overall, 2006

Patrik Berglund is St. Louis’ top-ranked European prospect. The 18-year-old center, taken in the first round of the draft last summer, was one of the top players in the Allsvenskan league in Sweden this year.

Berglund ranked fifth in league scoring in 2006-07, despite playing only 35 games in a 45-game schedule. He cracked the 20-goal plateau with 21 tallies, and added 27 assists to give him 48 points. Had he played the entire season, he would have finished a strong second in the scoring derby.

A native of Vasteras, Berglund centered his hometown club’s top line, and received plenty of special teams play, which enabled him to generate seven power-play goals. His plus-10 rating ranked him fifth on Vasteras, and he was a capable 53 percent in the face-off circle.

Berglund has represented Sweden internationally in the past, and early forecasts indicate that he has the potential to do so for many more years down the road. This year, he pulled on the Tre Kronor sweater at the World Junior Championship. Team Sweden hosted the tournament and placed fourth. Berglund had a goal and two assists.

Due in part to his offensive production, Vasteras finished fourth in the league standings with a 27-11-7 (win-loss-tie) record, but lost both preliminary round playoff games to Nykopings, as Berglund was held pointless. 

Berglund has shown good development is his first full season in the Allsvenskan. He expects to hone his skills in Sweden for a couple years more before coming over to North America.

Carl Soderberg, C – Malmo (Sweden)
Drafted: 49th Overall, 2004

Swedish center Carl Soderberg was excellent while in the Malmo line-up this year, but an unfortunate eye injury ended his season prematurely.

Before being clipped with a high stick, the 21-year-old was enjoying a breakout campaign. In 62 previous Swedish Elite League (SEL) games, Soderberg had just a single goal and seven points to his credit. This season, he was averaging nearly a point per game, with 12 goals and 18 assists in 31 contests. Four of his goals came on the power play. He had only spent 14 minutes in the penalty box, had an even plus/minus rating, and was over 50 percent on face-offs.

All of this was accomplished while playing for a last place Malmo club that won just 11 of 55 games. Despite missing 24 games, Soderberg very nearly led the team in scoring. Without their top forward, the Redhawks were unable to avoid relegation down to the Allsvenskan, losing their crucial last game of the promotion/relegation playoff round 6-5 to Leksands.

The Blues were hoping Soderberg would be joining them or their AHL affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen, for 2007-08. But at this point it seems likely that the Swede will be staying home for another year.

Jonas Junland, D – Linkopings (Sweden)
Drafted: 64th Overall, 2006

Defenseman Jonas Junland was able to gain valuable playoff experience this season, as his Linkopings club advanced all the way to the SEL final, where they were defeated by MoDo.

Junland provided solid play on the blue line for Linkopings. He was only on the ice for six goals against in 15 playoff games, and recorded five assists as well, far above his regular season pace. He also recorded 20 PIM and 22 shots on goal. Linkopings, who had finished fourth in the regular season standings, rolled through the first two rounds of the post-season before coming up just short in the final, losing four games to two.

In the regular season, Junland played primarily with Linkopings, but also had brief stints with the junior team, and Oskarshamn of the Allsvenskan. He was called up to the national team for the World Juniors as well, and was one of his team’s top performers in the tournament.

In 41 games in the top league, Junland scored one goal and had five points in total. He was a minus-3 with 22 PIM, so clearly he stepped up his game in the playoffs. He was dominant in the junior circuit, with 13 points in nine games, and had three points in his four games with Oskarshamn.

Still just 19 years old, it is probable that Junland will remain in Sweden for a season or even two before moving to North America.

Alexander Hellstrom, D – Bjorkloven (Sweden-2)
Drafted: 184th Overall, 2006

Defenseman Alexander Hellstrom is another 2006 draft pick playing in Sweden, with Allsvenskan club Bjorkloven.

Twenty-year-old Hellstrom was one of Bjorkloven’s most rugged defenders, totaling 104 PIM to tie for the team lead. He was far from an offensive catalyst, with just five assists in 39 games, but his team had several other high-scoring defensemen to shoulder the playmaking load. Hellstrom also played eight games for the Bjorkloven junior team, where he recorded two goals and two assists, in addition to 26 PIM. He was a member of Sweden’s World Junior squad.

Bjorkloven finished a solid fifth in the league standings, and dismissed both Vaxjo and Nykopings in the preliminary playoffs to qualify for the promotion/relegation round. In 10 games in this round-robin playoff, Hellstrom notched a pair of assists, and maintained his aggressive style with 43 PIM. Bjorkloven finished with three wins and three losses, plus four ties, which wasn’t quite enough for them to earn promotion to the SEL.

The Blues appear to have plenty of defensemen in their system at the moment, so there is no pressing need to bring Hellstrom to North America right away. 

David Fredriksson, LW – HV71 (Sweden)
Drafted: 211th Overall, 2004

After posting nine points in 37 Elite League games in 2005-06, this season proved to be a disappointment for David Fredriksson.

He began the season with HV71, and struggled in the 12 games he played with the club. Fredriksson saw limited ice time, and recorded just one assist and seven shots on goal. He was a minus-5. At the end of October he was loaned out to Vasteras in the Allsvenskan. He played three games with them, and fared marginally better, with an assist and a plus-2 rating. But shortly after his debut with his new team, Fredriksson suffered a knee injury and did not play again.

The late-round pick from 2004 was in attendance at the Blues’ prospect camp that preceded the main team camp, so it appears that the Blues did have an interest in him, but this past season may have changed their opinion.

Juhamatti Aaltonen, LW – Karpat Oulu (Finland)
Drafted: 284th Overall, 2003

Juhamatti Aaltonen is the organization’s only Finnish prospect. He has played several years in SM-Liiga, Finland’s top professional league, with Karpat Oulu.

The 2006-07 season was a successful one for Aaltonen. He improved upon last season’s scoring total by scoring 32 points this year, sniping 11 goals and adding 21 assists in 53 games played. All of this was accomplished while seeing less ice time than a player of his caliber would normally get, as he was playing behind several top-line forwards on a stacked Karpat team. The one area of Aaltonen’s game that could use improvement is his defensive game. He finished the year at minus-1 on a team with very few minus players.

Karpat finished the season atop the SM-Liiga standings, and rolled to the league championship without opposition, as they won all 10 of their playoff games, with a final-series victory over Jokerit Helsinki. Aaltonen scored one goal and three assists in the playoffs.

Aaltonen has a new contract with Karpat, but the Blues must sign him by June 1 to retain his rights.

Konstantin Barulin, G – Khimik Mytyshi (Russia)
Drafted: 84th Overall, 2003

Goaltender Konstantin Barulin capped off an excellent 2006-07 season by being invited to Team Russia’s World Championship training camp.

The young netminder didn’t see any playing time in the actual tournament, as he was only available in case of an injury emergency, but did get into a pre-tournament warm-up game against Austria.

Barulin was considered for the team on the basis of his strong regular season with Khimik Mytyshi in Super League, the top division of Russian hockey.  He played in 26 games, recording a GAA of 2.16 and a save percentage of .917, one of the best in the league. At one point, he was even leading the entire league in that category. He was also between the pipes for part of one of Khimik’s playoff games, allowing four goals against.  

Barulin was part of the Russian squad that played in the Sweden Games in February. He played three games, and came through with a pair of victories.

It is an encouraging sign that Barulin is putting up strong numbers in the Super League, generally considered the top European league. But with the opportunities now available at home, it could be difficult to convince him to come over and play in the minor leagues, as he is not yet developed enough for the NHL.  

Timofei Shishkanov, LW – Vityaz Podolsk Chekhov (Russia)
Drafted: 33rd Overall, 2001 (acquired via trade with Nashville)

Timofei Shishkanov declined the opportunity to vie for a roster spot in St. Louis this season, instead returning to his native Russia to play.

His results in the Super League were less than impressive, especially if he was hoping Blues management might try to bring him back over on a one-way contract. In 38 games with Vityaz he only produced 14 points, including nine goals. He finished with a minus-7 rating and 65 PIM. He went pointless in three playoff matches.

Shishkanov missed a portion of the season due to injury, and he was also in the infirmary ward during the World Championships. He was in attendance at the tournament training camp, but left before the tournament began because of injury concerns.

Unless Shishkanov has a very big rebound year, the Blues have probably lost interest in his services, unless he’s willing to sign a two-way contract, which seems unlikely. Still, the talented forward was worth taking a gamble on, as the Blues only gave impending free agent Mike Sillinger for his services late in the 2006 season. 

Evgeny Skachkov, LW – Traktor Chelyabinsk (Russia)
Drafted: 221st Overall, 2003

After several years of yo-yoing between the higher and lower divisions of Russian hockey, 22-year-old winger Evgeny Skachkov finally found a permanent home in the Super League.

Skachkov appeared in 52 games with Traktor Chelyabinsk, potting 13 goals and adding nine assists. He served 52 minutes in penalties, and finished with a minus-4 rating. Skachkov’s goal total was second on his team, while his 22 points ranked third. His team finished near the bottom of the league standings, so his personal statistics would have likely been higher if he were surrounded by more skillful players.

Skachkov was a late-round pick, and has hardly been tearing it up over in Russia since he was drafted. It seems doubtful that he will ever play in North America, though this past season gives him something to build on.  

Dmitri Semin, C – Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (Russia)
Drafted: 159th Overall, 2001

Russian center Dmitri Semin enjoyed his best season to date in the Super League in 2006-07. The 23-year-old had 13 goals and 26 points in total in playing 41 games with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. This matches his point output from last season, but was accomplished in 10 fewer games. He also racked up 30 PIM and was a minus-5. He was on fire to begin the season, but his quick start was interrupted in December when he broke his hand, causing him to miss about three weeks. This was quite unfortunate, as his production dwindled upon his return. 

Lokomotiv qualified for the playoffs, and Semin performed well. Playing on a line with playmaker Ivan Tkachenko, he notched three goals and a pair of assists in seven games played. With his team facing elimination in the second round of the playoffs against Avangard Omsk, Semin scored a pair of goals, but his team was unable to hold on to the lead and was eliminated.

The Blues have tried to sign Semin and bring him across the pond before, and will surely attempt to do so after his latest campaign. The skilled center seems ready to make the transition to North America, but like other Russian prospects, it may be difficult to convince him to spend time in the minor leagues as opposed to staying in his native country.

Nikolai Lemtyugov, RW – Severstal Cherepovets (Russia)
Drafted: 219th Overall, 2005

Nikolai Lemtyugov is St. Louis’ top-ranked Russian prospect. He spent 2006-07 with Severstal Cherepovets after playing several years in the CSKA Moscow system.

Lemtyugov saw his scoring totals dip slightly this year, possibly a byproduct of moving from CSKA to a mid-table club. After 20 points in 37 games in 2005-06, the 21-year-old winger tallied 11 goals and eight assists in 52 games this season. He had a plus-2 rating and picked up 50 PIM.

Severstal made the playoffs, losing a tight first-round series against Khimik three games to two. Lemtyugov had just one assist in the playoffs and was a minus-2, though his club as a whole was shut out in three of the five games.

The Blues could try to sign Lemtyugov and bring him to Peoria, but likely wouldn’t mind if he chose to remain in Russia for another season to fine-tune his offensive skills.  Some of this of course depends on the IIHF agreement situation.

Viktor Alexandrov, RW – HK MDV Tver (Russia)
Drafted: 83rd Overall, 2004

Kazakhstan native Viktor Alexandrov ended this season with Tver in the Russian Super League after spending the first part of the campaign with SKA St. Petersburg.

In 19 games with St. Petersburg, Alexandrov had just one goal, but collected 10 helpers. Despite his respectable statistics, SKA placed him on waivers in mid-December, and he was snapped up by Tver. After changing teams, his production remained at about the same level, with two goals and six assists in 20 games with his new club. Between the two teams he compiled 19 points in 39 games, totaling 26 penalty minutes, and a minus-3. 

Alexandrov was a relatively high draft pick (third round), so the Blues will likely attempt to get him to North America sooner than later.

Alexei Shkotov, C – Salavat Yulaev Ufa (Russia)
Drafted: 48th Overall, 2002

Smallish pivot Alexei Shkotov split 2006-07 between Khimik Mytyshi and Salavat, in the Russian Super League. Shkotov switched clubs after a dispute with the Khimik coaching staff. It seems that Khimik’s defense-first stance was in contrast to Shkotov’s offensive style of game. In 13 games with Khimik, he had two goals and six points. After the move, he recorded four goals and an assist in 19 games with Salavat, giving him 11 points in 32 games for the season. He was plus-8, with 32 penalty minutes. Shkotov also played a pair of games with Team Russia on the Euro Tour tournament, failing to register on the score sheet.

In the Super League playoffs, Shkotov appeared in six games. He scored two goals and added an assist.

The Blues drafted Shkotov in the second round in 2002, and he was quick to sign a contract with them. He played briefly in the AHL before leaving abruptly to go back to Russia in 2004-05. His play in Europe has been spotty at best, and it seems that the player who once had the makings of an NHL forward will spend his career in Russia.     

Andrei Pervyshin, D – Ak Bars Kazan (Russia)
Drafted: 253rd Overall, 2003

Unheralded defenseman Andrei Pervyshin, a solid defensive blueliner, who can even score from time to time, enjoyed an excellent season with Ak Bars Kazan. In 45 games, the small defender who can play physical had five goals and 13 points. He recorded 71 PIM, and was an outstanding plus-24. The Russian league playoffs were no different for Pervyshin. He had five points in 12 games and finished plus-3. In game four of the finals, against Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Pervyshin scored a pair of goals, including the winner, in a 4-3 victory.

Pervyshin continues to improve every year, and would likely have been drafted far higher if he were a few inches taller. With such impressive stats and continual development, the Blues surely will consider giving him a serious look, regardless of size. 

Nikita Nikitin, D – Avangard Omsk (Russia)
Drafted: 136th Overall, 2004

Another defenseman, 20-year-old Nikita Nikitin, also enjoyed a strong campaign in the Super League. Nikitin is a strong skater, which enables him to play the role of puck-moving defenseman. This is evident in the 15 assists he compiled in 54 games with Avangard Omsk this year. He also scored a goal, and was plus-8 with 99 PIM on the second-place club. Nikitin played with several other talented defensemen and forwards, who helped him develop his own offensive game, while also supplying capable defense.

Avangard made it to the semi-finals in the playoffs before falling to Matallurg. Nikitin continued to provide offensive production with five assists in 11 games. He also recorded 39 minutes in penalties. 

Nikitin recently signed a one-year contract to remain in Omsk. It is anticipated that he will sign with the Blues and come over to North America for the 2008-09 season, as this season showed that he has NHL potential.

Reto Berra, G – ZSC Lions (Switzerland)
Drafted: 106th Overall, 2006

Swiss netminder Reto Berra is the other of St. Louis’s two goaltending prospects in Europe. He played most of the season with GCZ in the Swiss National “B” League, while also seeing action with ZSC Lions in the National “A” League.

Berra’s playing time was fairly limited in 2006-07. In the “B” League, he played six complete games (save for being pulled for an extra attacker), with a GAA of 3.00, and a 4-2 win/loss record. He played one full game in the “A” League regular season, allowing four goals, but recording the win. The rest of the time, Berra was dressed as the backup with either of the two Zurich clubs. 

Berra was Switzerland’s starting goaltender at the World Juniors, and was one of the bright spots on an out-manned Swiss side. He managed a .899 save percentage and a 3.17 GAA in helping his country avoid relegation to the second tier of the tournament for 2007-08.

The Lions just snuck into the playoffs in eighth place, but gave top-seeded HC Davos all they could handle. The Zurich side built up a 3-1 series lead, but couldn’t squeak out the decisive victory. The Lions’ starter, Ari Sulander, was injured during game four of the series, so Berra came in to relieve him. He was in goal for the final three losses of the series, and while he didn’t light it up, he didn’t fare too poorly either, allowing three goals against in each game. He was possibly a little rusty due to such limited playing time in the second half of the season.

Ironically, Berra is expected to play next season with Davos. In an intriguing twist of fate, Jonas Hiller, Davos’ starter this season, is expected to sign in North America, and the Blues a rumored to be pursuing him. One thing that is certain is that both Berra and the Blues would like him to receive more playing time than has to this point.  

Tomas Kana, LW – Vitkovice (Czech)
Drafted: 31st Overall, 2006

Last year’s second-round pick, Tomas Kana, was one of the leading scorers with Czech club Vitkovice this season. Kana plays a solid at both ends of the ice. He scored nine goals and had 16 points in total, while compiling 54 penalty minutes in 44 games in the Czech Republic’s top league. He finished the year with a plus-1 rating, and his coach trusted him on the penalty kill.

The 19-year-old winger also played six games with Mlada Boleslav in the second division. He scored two goals and had an assist. He was also with the team for the playoffs, scoring one goal in his six playoff appearances. Vitkovice just barely missed the Extraliga playoffs.

Kana was one of his country’s best players at the World Juniors this year. He had two goals and four assists in seven games with the Czech contingent.

The OHL’s Owen Sound Attack were reportedly close to bringing Kana over to North America midway through the season, but Kana and Vitkovice decided against it at the last minute. Being drafted so high, it is likely the Blues want to see him in North America as soon as possible, so they may push for him to play major junior in Canada in 2007-08.

Konstantin Zakharov, C – HC Minsk (Belarus)
Drafted: 101st Overall, 2003

Konstantin Zakharov began the season in the AHL with Peoria, but packed up and headed back to Belarus before the season’s conclusion. In 32 games with the Rivermen, Zakharov had eight goals and a respectable 14 points. But then he suddenly took off without warning, electing to play with HC Minsk, in Belarus. He only appeared in two league games for his new team. The two top clubs in the city, one of which is coached by Zakharov’s father, will merge and play in the second division of the Russian league in 2007-08. This seems to be the most likely cause for his unexpected departure.

This isn’t the first time Zakharov has flown the coop in mid-season, so in all likelihood the Blues’ patience with him is at an end and he is no longer in their future plans. 

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