Wednesday, November 22, 2006

"Game Time" -- The System From Aaltonen to Zakharov, Part Four

(originally published November 9, 2006)

"D" is the fourth letter of the alphabet, so it's fitting that this fourth installment of our annual look at the Blues’ system is heavy on defense prospects. In all, we have three AHL players, two Russians, a collegian, and a high school senior on tonight's menu. All personal data (height, weight, etc.) is taken from the Blues’ website, and all statistics are as of Wednesday, November 8.

Aaron Mackenzie, D, shoots L, 6’00, 190, born 03-07-81. The Terrace Bay, Ontario native isn't the biggest or the fastest guy out there, but he has heart and leadership qualities that take a back seat to few in the Blues organization. What's more, he plays the kind of physical hard-hitting game that would be expected from a player four inches taller and thirty pounds heavier. Mackenzie finished a four-year career at Denver University with 19 goals, 54 assists, and 164 PIM in 157 games, and was the Pioneers' MVP and Best Defenseman, and WCHA co-Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. He signed with the Blues as a free agent, and since turning pro in 2003-04, has become a fixture in the Blues' organizational defense corps. He's never been a big offensive contributor (0-2-2 with 26 PIM in 12 games this year), but his hard-nosed, no-nonsense game is bound to get him a cup of coffee soon at the NHL level if injuries continue to plague the Blues on defense.

Matthew McCollem, LW, shoots L, 6’00, 185, born 05-06-88. Taken in the sixth round (154th overall) by the Blues last summer, the Somerville, Massachusetts product will be playing his senior year at Belmont Hill School before moving on to Harvard for the 2007-08 campaign. Like Mackenzie, McCollem isn't the biggest player around, but loves to play a physical game, and his 48 PIM in 28 high-school games last year bears that out. He can also score a little, with 17 goals and 28 points last season. McCollem took part in the Blues' Prospect Camp in July, and impressed many observers with his speed, competitiveness, grit, and nose for the net. A little more growth and development, and the Blues could have another late-round steal on their hands.

Tomas Mojzis, D, shoots L, 6’00, 195, born 05-02-82. Acquired from Vancouver at last season's trade deadline, Mojzis was specifically requested by the Blues as a return for veteran Eric Weinrich. The lanky Czech has had a cup of coffee in the NHL, with Vancouver, and was playing well early in the pre-season. A bad game vs. the hated Blackhawks, however, wrote Mojzis' ticket to Peoria this year, where he will most likely remain until he regains the offensive touch he displayed in junior. He was 21-49-70 with 126 PIM in his last year of junior, and has been 20-53-73 with 154 PIM in 185 career AHL games over the three seasons prior to this one. Currently, Mojzis is 0-2-2 with a minus-3 and 24 PIM in 11 games for Peoria.

Nikita Nikitin, D, shoots L, 6’03, 178, born 06-16-86. Nikitin has come up in the system of Siberian club Avangard Omsk, and he's been a regular there since his draft year in 2004. Never a big goal scorer, Nikitin does have a good, hard shot, and that's contributed to his career high five assists so far this year. Long and lean at six-three, 178 pounds, Nikitin definitely needs to add some bulk; he does, however, like to throw around what height he has, as his 44 PIM in 21 games this season, and 70 in 76 career RSL games, will attest. Jarmo Kekalainen and Ville Siren were both high on Nikitin when he was drafted, so there's a better-than-even chance they'll lead an effort to get him signed and in Peoria next season.

T.J. Oshie, C, shoots R, 5’11, 181, born 12-23-86. In the last three seasons, the Blues have used their four first-round picks to reload their system with a quality prospect at every position. In 2006, the Blues used two picks to select a big center at 25th overall and a franchise defenseman at first overall. In 2005, the Blues went "off the board" with the 24th overall pick and selected an undersized, little-known forward from a small Minnesota high school. The "experts" scratched their heads then, but after T.J Oshie's dominant freshman season with WCHA powerhouse North Dakota (24-21-45, 33 PIM in 44 games), no one's wondering any more. This year, Oshie's having a bit of a sophomore slump, but is still among the Fighting Sioux' scoring leaders with 2-6-8 totals and four PIM in 10 games thus far.

Peoria Rivermen. The Blues’ primary affiliate and priority destination for prospect development, the Rivermen have been associated with the Blues for over two decades in the International League, ECHL, and now the American League.

Andrei Pervyshin, D, shoots L, 5’09, 165, born 02-02-85. Chosen by the Blues with the 253rd overall pick in 2003, Pervyshin has loads of talent and hockey sense. If he were three inches taller and thirty pounds heavier, the Blues would have moved heaven and earth to get him to North America by now. As it is, his play in the Russian Superleague over the last three seasons (7-13-20, plus-27, 56 PIM in 121 games) would probably earn him at least a spot in Peoria, but Pervyshin seems to have little interest in being a small fish in a big pond. He's 4-3-7 with a plus-13 and 24 PIM in 21 games this year with Ak Bars Kazan.

Roman Pola'k, D, shoots R, 6’01, 198, born 04-28-86. The Ostrava, Czech Republic native has quietly shot up the Blues' depth chart on defense, to the point where he opened his rookie pro season on the Blues' opening night lineup. His poise, physicality, and hockey sense have been praised by observers this year ever since an eye-opening Prospect Camp and performance at the Traverse City prospect tournament. Never a big offensive contributor (no points, no PIM, minus-1 in six games with the Blues), Pola'k has recently been sent down to Peoria where he will get quality minutes instead of the third-pairing time he was getting in St. Louis. He has become a very big part of a very bright future on defense for the Blues.

In our next installment, we'll be looking at some more Russians and AHLers, as well as forwards from the USHL and WHL, and the former first-rounder who may well be the Blues' goaltender of the future. Until then, check out archived "Tomorrow's Blues" columns and other prospect-related content at, and remember... "If we do not prepare for ourselves the role of the hammer, there will be nothing left but that of the anvil." Auf wiedersehen.

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