Thursday, December 28, 2006
In the last two editions of "Tomorrow's Blues," we've discussed the reactions of one European player (Magnus Kahnberg) to his assignment to Peoria, and we've addressed some of the issues that player raised upon his return to Europe. We also noted that, based on these experiences, and the Blues' experiences with other European prospects who spent time in major junior after being drafted, the course of wisdom seems to lie with getting European prospects over to North America as soon as possible after their selection in the draft.
The skill level and creativity of the average European-trained player is highly desirable in the modern NHL. The economics of the game, however, are such that most young European players can make considerably more money by remaining in their home countries and signing contracts with elite league clubs there, than they can by signing entry-level two-way contracts and starting their pro careers in the AHL. Staying in Europe offers the benefits of little or no professional risk to the player, and no adjustment to a new culture or a new language.
The lure of making good money to stay among family and friends is a powerful one, often to much for many young European players to resist. They are driven to achieve the highest level of competition in their home countries, and that's admirable, but the drive to do whatever it takes to make it to the NHL is not present in these players, as it is with young North Americans who are prepared to pay the price to achieve the highest level of competition that their home country has to offer.
But what of the young European player who willingly leaves his home and familiar surroundings at age 16 or 17, and journeys halfway around the world in search of the most challenging level of competition? For the most part, these are players who could remain in their home countries, play in the top junior leagues there, and be dominant in that setting. With modern scouting methods and communications technology, these players stand as much chance of being seen in Prague as they do in Portland. They could probably be higher profile players at home, in fact; big fish in smaller ponds, as it were.
What causes some young Europeans to cross the pond in their draft year, or even earlier, in some cases?
Character, that's what. Acceptance of the reality that the road to the NHL, for all but the most truly exceptional and gifted of young players, leads through such places as Syracuse, San Antonio, and yes, Peoria. By willingly coming to North America as teenagers, and acclimating themselves to the North American game and culture, these players are demonstrating a commitment to the National Hockey League dream, rather than the dream of being stars in Finland, Sweden, Switzerland or the Czech Republic. And that speaks volumes about their character.
It seems reasonable to assume that best chance the Blues have of getting skilled Europeans to play in Peoria, is to add skilled Europeans to the system who have already crossed the pond and are showcasing their skills in the top junior leagues. To that end, then, we present a brief look at a few Europeans already playing North American hockey, who should be on the Blues' radar screen come June.
We've already talked about Jakub Voracek of Halifax (QMJHL) in this space. A solid player with NHL size and skill, Voracek seems to have the early edge in the race for the first-overall pick this summer. If the Blues do end up with a lottery pick, as seems likely, Voracek is a player they would almost certainly be looking at very closely.
If, however, the Blues don't end up with a lottery pick, there are other top-notch Europeans who should still be available with later first-round selections. Out west, Michal Repik of Vancouver (5-11, 185, born 12-31-88) is a skilled stickhandler with a good shot, and his excellent speed and elite mobility have helped him to 15 goals and 33 points (plus-7, 28 PIM) in 33 games. There's also Oscar Moller of the expansion Chilliwack Bruins (5-11, 177, born 01-22-89), who has racked up 19 goals and 33 points (plus-6, 24 PIM) in 34 games with grit and determination.
On defense, Tri-City's towering Juraj Valach (6-06, 210, born 02-01-89) has four goals and 18 points, with a plus-4 mark and 26 PIM in 27 games. Another defenseman worth a look in the late first or early second round is David Skokan (6-00, 202, born 12-06-88) of Rimouski (QMJHL), who is an intense and determined player with good skating skills and a heavy shot from the point. Skokan has used those attributes to the tune of seven goals and 22 points, with 36 PIM, in 27 games so far this year.
Skokan's teammate in Rimouski is Russian forward Maxim Gratchev (5-11, 198, born 09-26-88), an effortless skater with soft hands and a willingness to battle for loose pucks. Gratchev currently leads the Oceanic with 14-23-37 totals (minus -7, 52 PIM) in 36 games. Another European forward with good hands and skating skills is Patrik Lusnak (6-00, 180, born 11-06-88) of the Sudbury Wolves (OHL). The young Slovak is still getting used to the North American game, but his 9-14-23 totals (plus-4, 21 PIM) in 35 games show that the adjustment isn't proving to be difficult so far.
There's also an interesting prospect in the USHL, Stockholm native Calle Ridderwall of the Tri-City Storm (5-11, 170, born 05-28-88) This is a player who knows where the net is; in 76 games with the junior "B" Chicago Chill last season, Ridderwall piled up 52 goals and 118 points. This year, he's leading the Storm with 13-15-28 totals in 22 games (24 PIM, plus-9, 7 PPG, 3 GWG), and he'll be attending Notre Dame in the fall of 2007. A late-round pick spent on this player just might pay big dividends for the Blues in five years or so.
Look for more on these players, and others, in future articles in this space, and on the Web along with archived "Tomorrow's Blues" articles and other prospect-related content on the "Future 'Notes" blog at http://futurenotes.blogspot.com. Until next time, 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.
Previously in this space, we looked into some comments made by former Peoria Riverman Magnus Kahnberg upon his return to Sweden at the beginning of December. The speedy winger was apparently dissatisfied with a "slow, static" style of play by the Rivermen, and was negotiating with the Blues about going back to Sweden even while telling Peoria in the papers that he wasn't looking to get out.
In an interview, part of which was excerpted here, Kahnberg raised some issues about Peoria and the Rivermen, issues that deserve a serious look. In today's column, we'll take that look and talk about what the Rivermen are doing right, and what they could perhaps be doing differently.
As previously mentioned, Kahnberg is not the first Blues' prospect of European descent to pass on the opportunity to ply his trade in central Illinois this winter. Second-round selections Carl Söderberg (2004) and Alexei Shkotov (2002) also balked at assignment to Peoria from the Blues' training camp, and both are currently playing in their home countries (Sweden and Russia, respectively).
Söderberg's decision to return home wasn't completely unexpected, as he had said last season that if his hometown team (IF Malmö Red Hawks) was able to work their way into the Swedish Elite League from the Allsvenskan (Division II), he wanted to play at least one year in the SEL, in front of his hometown fans and family. Shkotov had various family issues in Russia, and never even showed up for camp.
Söderberg is better than even money to be back next year, and will probably challenge for an NHL roster spot based on his play in Sweden so far. Shkotov, on the other hand, does not appear to be interested in coming back at all, and based on what he's done in Russia so far this year, that might not be any great loss. Still, however, the question remains: what, if anything, are the Blues doing to get their European prospects interested in coming over and paying their dues in the AHL, and more importantly, what are they doing to ease their transition when the Europeans do make it across the pond?
In a couple of interviews with the Swedish media, Kahnberg mentioned that there was little for the players to do off the ice in Peoria, and implied that the organization had left him on his own, more or less, to find his own way in America. That may well be because Kahnberg, at 26, was no green kid just off the reindeer farm in Sweden... but if the Blues' organization is also leaving the younger Euros to fend for themselves when coming over, that could be a problem.
There have been no reports of the young Europeans being left on their own, but the Blues would do well to create and publicize a program whereby new young players who don't speak English as a first language are enrolled in English classes even before stepping off the bus in Peoria for the first time, and assigned a "host" family who speaks their language and/or is familiar with their native culture. The Booster Club would be a great resource for the "host" families, as booster clubs at the minor-league level are generally populated by younger single adults and families who are eager for any chance to spend time with "their" players, and genuinely want to do whatever they can to help the team and promote them in the home city.
That's just one suggestion for helping the Europeans make the transition when they get here, but can any improvement be made in the process of getting them here in the first place? At first glance, it might seem that the Blues as an organization are chronically deficient in getting top European prospects to come to America, but in reality, the Blues currently have four young Europeans playing at Peoria -- LW Michal Birner, D Roman Pola'k, G Marek Schwarz, and RW Konstantin Zakharov -- and all have been making contributions.
The common thread with each of these players is that all four of them came over from Europe the year after being drafted by the Blues, and played at least one season of major junior hockey in the CHL. Birner started in Barrie of the OHL in 2004 before being traded to Saginaw midway through his first season. Pola'k and Schwarz each played the 2004-05 season in the Western League, with Kootenay and Vancouver respectively, before returning home in 2005-06 to play in the Czech Extraliga. Zakharov came over in 2003 after being chosen by the Blues 101st overall that summer, and racked up 33 goals in 55 games with Moncton of the QMJHL.
The time spent in North America prior to turning pro can not have been anything but beneficial to these players, in terms of helping them make the adjustment to a new language and a new way of life. Based on this admittedly small sample, the conclusion is reached that the best way for the Blues to get their European prospects prepared for the road to the NHL is to get them over to North America immediately after drafting them. This was the plan for 2006 draftee Tomas Kana (31st overall), who was verbally committed to Owen Sound of the OHL before doing an about-face and going back to the Czech Republic to play in the Extraliga for Vitkovice.
Other European prospects like Juhamatti Aaltonen of Finland, and Russians Viktor Alexandrov, Konstantin Barulin, Nikolai Lemtyugov and Nikita Nikitin have been playing the last two seasons in the elite leagues in their home countries, and are now of age to come directly to the AHL (Barulin, at 22, is the oldest). The transition for these players will probably be more difficult because they have had little or no exposure to the North American game or way of life, choosing instead to develop through their late teens and early 20's at home. Based on the Blues' experience with other European prospects, the odds are against any of these players ever making an appearance in the American League, and subsequently on the Blues' roster.
When it comes to Europeans, the Blues as an organization are fond of their talent and skill level, so it would seem that the plan needs to be to draft them and place them with a major junior team right away, in the season immediately following the draft in which the player is chosen, if at all possible.
There is, however, an alternative, one which the Blues have yet to avail themselves of during the Jarmo Kekalainen era. We'll look at that alternative in greater detail in the next edition of "Tomorrow's Blues." Until then, check out archived "Tomorrow's Blues" articles and other prospect-related content on the "Future 'Notes" blog at http://futurenotes.blogspot.com, 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.
Much has been made in recent weeks of the departure of ex-Peoria Riverman Magnus Kahnberg back to Sweden, and of an interview given to a Swedish journalist by Kahnberg shortly after returning to his homeland.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, Kahnberg did an interview with Peoria beat writer Dave Eminian in which he said that he wasn't thinking about going back, and that he was committed to earning a shot with the Blues. In the Swedish interview, however, Kahnberg noted that he started thinking about returning to Sweden around the first of November, and during the time frame when he was interviewed by Eminian, was already actively discussing with the Blues the terms under which he could go back home.
In another interview, on December 11, 2006 with the Swedish newspaper "Expressen," Kahnberg referred to Peoria as a "boring" city, and noted that the team's playing style was slow and static (a point he also made in the Eminian interview), which was not how he was used to playing or wanted to play.
Leaving aside any opinions about Kahnberg's character and honesty in telling Eminian one thing while doing another, there may be some valuable lessons for the Blues to learn from this whole rather unfortunate situation. Kahnberg is not the first European player this year to reject the AHL; Phoenix prospect Enver Lisin was assigned to AHL San Antonio on November 27, but refused to report and went back to Russia. Earlier this season, the Blues had a pair of highly-regarded prospects, Carl Söderberg and Alexei Shkotov, both balk at assignment to Peoria, and both are playing in their home countries.
Many large corporations now conduct an "exit interview" with management-level employees when those employees leave the company, in the hopes of determining any systemic shortcomings that can be fixed to keep others happy and in the company's employ. Maybe the Blues might want to use this as Kahnberg's "exit interview," and use the information gathered here to take another look at some of their processes and methods regarding the Rivermen and prospect development -- especially with Europeans?
A special thanks goes out to Johan Karlsson at the "Hockey's Future" website, for translating the "Expressen" interview from the original Swedish. What follows are some excerpts from that interview:
Expressen: Was the step from the SEL to the NHL bigger then what you thought?
Kahnberg: No, I was very well prepared both mentally and physically. I had a good camp and was surprised when I was sent down in the last cut.
Expressen: You ended up on the farm-team Peoria Rivermen in the AHL, how was that?
Kahnberg: It was a boring city, there was nothing to do. I've probably seen every movie in the theater that there is to see; just to walk my dog I had to take the car and go 10 minutes away.
Expressen: What was the standard of the hockey?
Kahnberg: I didn't like the way we played hockey. It was a very strict game, we stood still and there was no speed. It was not developing for myself and after a month I just wanted out. The joy disappeared, the fun was taken out of the game.
Expressen: How was the mood among the players on the team?
Kahnberg: They were great guys, but there you mostly play for yourself and not as a team. For example in a 2-1 (game), players mostly shot the puck. Afterwards there were big piles of paper filled with stats which the players read to see how they had performed.
Expressen: Did you and your girlfriend live in a hotel during the entire stay?
Kahnberg: No, in St. Louis I lived in a guest-room in Christian Bäckman's house. When I got demoted we lived in a hotel room for a month before moving in with a teammate in his new house in which we rented a room. Sure, it was a hassle, but we kept our spirits up.
Agree or disagree with Kahnberg's stance, there's some interesting first-hand insight here as to how things are going at Peoria. Let's break down those comments a little.
From all accounts, and from what little personal observation the Game Time prospect department was able to make, Kahnberg had a pretty good training camp, and probably should have gotten an opportunity to at least start the season up on the big club. Based on this, and the Shkotov/Söderberg defections, and the Konstantin Zakharov departure from Alaska last year, it'd be easy to say that the Blues are gaining a reputation for not giving their European prospects a fair shake... but then, how do you explain rookie Roman Pola'k starting the year in St. Louis? Or Zakharov's decision to return and give it another go?
Secondly, I'll grant you that Peoria's not exactly the most exciting and cosmopolitan of cities, but remember, Magnus... you're there to play hockey, not to dig the swingin' nightlife. Nonetheless, he does seem to be making a valid point that the organization may not be doing enough to help the newcomers and their families or significant others adjust to a new lifestyle in North America.
The most interesting of Kahnberg's comments are those about the players focusing more on their individual game, and about the team's overall game plan.
It might be expected for players at that level to be more focused on developing themselves as individuals, so as to give themselves the best possible chance to be promoted to the NHL... but it's also not an unreasonable expectation to think that there should be a coherent "team" concept, even at that level, that can harness the individual energy of the players and guide them all in the same direction. If that's not happening, that's something that the Blues might want to look at and fix, if necessary.
It's also interesting that, from the sound of it, the coaching staff in Peoria is teaching the prospects to play the same kind of deliberate, defense-oriented game that the Blues had been playing under Mike Kitchen. Certainly, you want continuity of systems, and of instruction, in your organization... but since the system in St. Louis is about to be altered, perhaps drastically so, as a result of Andy Murray's hiring as head coach, are the Peoria coaches prepared -- or even able -- to adjust their coaching tactics and game plan in mid-season, in order to maintain that continuity throughout the organization?
We'll discuss these issues, and throw out some ideas for addressing them, in our next report. Until then, check out archived "Tomorrow's Blues" articles and other prospect-related content on the "Future 'Notes" blog at http://futurenotes.blogspot.com, 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.
Kahnberg's interview with "Expressen," 12-11-06:
Eminian's interview with Kahnberg, 11-21-06:
Friday, December 15, 2006
With the American Hockey League season just about one-third complete, it's time to take a quick look at how the Blues' prospects in Peoria have been doing as a team. The results to date are encouraging for the most part, but there are some areas of concern to be examined as well.
As of Monday, December 11, the Rivermen sit in third place in the West Division of the AHL's Western Conference with a 13-8-1-2 record for 29 points and a solid .604 point percentage. The Rivermen are a respectable .500 on the road (5-5-1-2) and a very nice 8-3-0-0 at the friendly confines of Carver Arena. As a result, Peoria sits 11th overall in the 27-team AHL, and are currently the fifth seed in the Western Conference. If the playoffs were to begin today, the Rivermen would face the Hamilton (Ontario) Bulldogs, where Montreal and Edmonton send their prospects for development.
As with the parent Blues, offense has been an issue for the Rivermen this year. As of now, they are 23rd in the AHL in goals for per game, with 64 goals in 24 games, an average of 2.67 goals for per game. Defensively, however, the Rivermen are better, ranking ninth in the league with 70 goals against in 24 games and posting a team GAA of 2.88. The team save percentage, unfortunately, isn't keeping pace. The three Peoria goalies this year have allowed 70 goals (two ENG) in 631 shots against for a meager 88.9% team save percentage, with Jason Bacashihua's 86.0% (178 saves on 207 shots against) dragging the rest down.
The Rivermen power play is middle-of-the-road in the AHL, ranked 11th overall with 26 goals in 149 tries, a 17.45% success rate. At the other end of the spectrum, like the parent Blues, the Rivermen have been having some trouble staying out of the penalty box. 570 minutes in penalties, an average of 22.8 minutes per game, has the Rivermen sitting in a tie for seventh-highest average PIM per game in the league. Peoria's penalty kill ranks tenth in the league with 131 kills in 154 times shorthanded, an 85.06% rate of success.
Offensively, the Rivermen have no players among the league's leading scorers, or among the league's leading rookie scorers. Veteran Trent Whitfield leads the Peoria scoring parade at the moment with 11-10-21 totals while appearing in all 24 games played to date. AHL-contracted player Charles Linglet leads the team in goals scored with 12 (to go along with six assists for 18 points), and checking-line center Ryan Ramsay has the best plus/minus mark on the club with a plus-6. David Backes tops the Rivermen rookies with nine goals and 11 points, but also shares (with utility man Mike Stuart) the worst plus/minus mark on the team with a minus-8. Bruiser DJ King tops the team with 58 minutes in penalty time.
On the defensive side, rookie goaltender Marek Schwarz has justified his selection as the 17th overall pick in 2004 with a very nice 2.28 GAA in 12 games, ranking him fifth in the AHL at present, and tops among rookie goaltenders. Schwarz also boasts a 9-2-0 record, putting him just outside the top five in wins by AHL goalies, and has allowed only 26 goals on 297 shots against for a very respectable 91.2% save percentage.
Peoria started the month of November with a 10-5 shellacking at the hands of their arch-rivals, the Chicago Wolves. After that wake-up call, however, the Rivermen reeled off an impressive 8-1-1-1 string, with wins over division foes Iowa (three times), Omaha (twice), and Houston (once), leading up to last weekend's road trip to Winnipeg and a two-game set with the Manitoba Moose.
On paper, the series looked like a slam dunk for the good guys. Peoria was 13-6-1-2 and on a hot streak, while the Moose were two games under .500 at 10-12-3-2, and had just lost four games in five days. The ice storm that gripped the Upper Midwest put a hitch in Peoria's travel plans, however, which should have been a sign of things to come for the Rivermen.
Chris Beckford-Tseu, who was an impressive 2-0-1 with a 1.90 GAA and 92.7% save percentage in limited action for the Rivermen, was pressed into service as Peoria's number one goalie after Bacashihua and Schwarz got callups to St. Louis. This series would be "The Hyphenator's" first crack at being the go-to guy at the AHL level, and it turned out to be less than memorable for the Richmond Hill, Ontario native.
The Moose are fourth in the AHL in attendance this year, averaging over 7000 per contest, and Winnipeggers turned out in even better numbers this past weekend to cheer on their home team. Inspired by crowds of over 7500 in both games, Manitoba took care of the Rivermen by scores of 4-1 on Friday night and 3-0 on Sunday afternoon. Beckford-Tseu allowed five goals on 30 shots (an 85.7% save percentage) in just over 117 minutes of ice time, and the Moose sealed the two wins with the only two empty-net goals scored against the Rivermen all season.
Beckford-Tseu and the Rivermen have a chance to right the ship with four games before Christmas, all at home on the Peoria riverfront. They'll face the Iowa Stars on Friday and Sunday of this week, with a game against Grand Rapids sandwiched in between on Saturday. Peoria will also host the Griffins again on Friday, December 22 before taking a three-day break for Christmas. The Rivermen this year are 3-0-0-0 vs. Iowa, with 12 goals for and five against, and won their only other meeting with Grand Rapids this year by a 3-1 score on November 17 at Van Andel Arena.
Until next time, check out archived "Tomorrow's Blues" articles and other prospect-related content on the "Future 'Notes" blog at http://futurenotes.blogspot.com, 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.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
We have good news and bad news on tap this evening. The bad news is the fact that the Blues seem destined for another sub-standard season this year. The good news, of course, is that a poor record means the Blues will probably have another lottery pick this year, and could even end up with the first-overall pick for the second year in a row.
The better news is that, even though this draft isn't considered particularly flush with first-line talent, the few blue-chip prospects that will be available are concentrated at the top of the draft. Here's a quick look at five players that the "Game Time" prospect department ranks as the best of the best right now. All statistics are as of December 8, 2006.
Jakub Voracek, RW, shoots L, 6’02, 190, born 08-15-89. Probably the consensus first-overall pick right now, Voracek has all the size, speed and skill necessary to be an impact player in the NHL. The first pick in last year's CHL Import Draft, Voracek has great offensive instincts and hockey sense, is a skilled passer and puckhandler, and is creative and tenacious in high-traffic areas in front of the net and in the slot. The native of Slany, Czech Republic was the NAPA Draft Prospect of the Month in the QMJHL for October, per the Canadian Hockey league website (www.chl.ca). Voracek spent the entire 2005-06 season with Kladno juniors (46 GP, 21-38-59, plus-17, 54) learning English and preparing to make the transition to North America.
International Scouting Services December 2006 Ranking: 1st
McKeen's Hockey Prospects Fall 2006 Ranking: 1st
NHL Central Scouting Preliminary Ranking (QMJHL): 7th
Current statistics: Halifax (QMJHL), 32 GP, 14-28-42, minus-12, 14 PIM, 6 PPG, 4 GWG
James van Riemsdyk, LW, shoots L, 6’03, 190, born 05-04-89. The native of Middletown, New Jersey is a player on the rise in the draft rankings, and was recently named to Team USA for the 2007 World Junior Championships to be held in Sweden starting December 26. Van Riemsdyk has a strong but sometimes-choppy skating stride, a long reach and good hands. His wrist shot is excellent, and he has a good slap shot as well. He has the size and strength to handle himself well in traffic. Van Riemsdyk was 26-16-42 with 62 PIM in 55 games for the USA U-17 team last year, and also saw time with the U-18 squad in 2005-06.
International Scouting Services December 2006 Ranking: 2nd
McKeen's Hockey Prospects Fall 2006 Ranking: 13th
NHL Central Scouting Preliminary Ranking (USNTDP): "A" Watch List Player
Current statistics: USA U-18 (USNTDP), 16 GP, 14-9-23, +/- NA, 20 PIM, 8 PPG, 2 GWG
Angelo Esposito, C, shoots L, 6'01, 185, born 02-20-89. For the last couple of season, Esposito was touted as the top player available for the 2007 Entry Draft. He's still very highly-ranked, and probably still at the top of more than one team's draft list, but players like Voracek and van Riemsdyk have caught up to, and possibly passed, the lanky teenager from Montreal. Skating is Esposito's best asset, with excellent top-end speed, an explosive first step, and first-class agility and lateral movement. Though not the biggest player out there, he is unafraid and doesn't back down from physical challenges. Esposito has top-notch hockey sense and is a better-than average passer and playmaker.
International Scouting Services December 2006 Ranking: 3rd
McKeen's Hockey Prospects Fall 2006 Ranking: 3rd
NHL Central Scouting Preliminary Ranking (QMJHL): 1st
Current statistics: Quebec (QMJHL), 29 GP, 15-36-51, plus-12, 41 PIM, 2 PPG, 1 GWG
Karl Alzner, D, shoots L, 6’02, 209, born 09-24-88. Alzner missed qualifying for the 2006 draft by a mere nine days, which makes him one of the older players available in 2007. Alzner is a big fan of Scott Niedermayer, and plays a similar game. Already showing signs of becoming one of the top blueliners in the 'Dub with his 2005-06 performance (4-20-24, plus-14, 28 PIM in 70 games), he has surpassed last year's scoring totals in only 33 games so far. Alzner is a smooth, composed blueliner who thrives on lots of playing time and has world-class hockey sense and instincts. He doesn't play a particularly physical game, but instead uses his positioning and skating skills to be effective on defense.
International Scouting Services December 2006 Ranking: 5th
McKeen's Hockey Prospects Fall 2006 Ranking: 4th
NHL Central Scouting Preliminary Ranking (WHL): 14th
Current statistics: Calgary (WHL), 33 GP, 5-23-28, plus-5, 20 PIM, 5 PPG, 0 GWG
Sam Gagner, C, shoots R, 5'11, 190, born 08-10-89. The son of former NHL great Dave Gagner, Sam has tremendous puckhandling skills and is an Adam Oates-class passer with incredible on-ice vision and patience, and the ability to thread the needle with a pass in traffic. A member of the London Knights juggernaut, Gagner sits third in Ontario League scoring right now, and can dictate the pace of the game when on the ice due to his passing and puckhandling ability. He also has the ability to make other players better, and is something of a power-play specialist. The chief knock on him is his choppy skating, but he skates well enough and fast enough to get the job done.
International Scouting Services December 2006 Ranking: 6th
McKeen's Hockey Prospects Fall 2006 Ranking: 6th
NHL Central Scouting Preliminary Ranking (OHL): 1st
Current statistics: London (OHL), 28 GP, 16-46-62, plus-15, 12 PIM, 8 PPG, 1 GWG
Other players to keep an eye on include Logan Couture (C/L, 6-00, 190, Ottawa/OHL, 18 GP, 7-15-22, -9, 8 PIM), James Petrecki (D/L, 6-03, 215, Omaha/USHL, 16 GP, 1-2-3, +1, 67 PIM), and Colton Gillies (C/L, 6-04, 195, Saskatoon/WHL, 24 GP, 4-9-13, -4, 26 PIM).
Until next time, check out archived "Tomorrow's Blues" articles and other prospect-related content on the "Future 'Notes" blog at http://futurenotes.blogspot.com, 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.
Tonight, the Blues pay tribute to Brett Hull, the man, the myth, the legend...
For many Blues' fans, Hull is the reason why they are Blues' fans in the first place. For others, who grew up admiring the exploits of Bobby Hull, Brett is a chip off the old block. No matter which view one takes, however, it goes without saying that Brett Hull's importance to the Blues' franchise, and to the city of St. Louis, is very significant. Hull's record-setting goal totals in the late 80's and early 90's put St. Louis firmly on the hockey map, and perhaps the best Blues' team of all time -- the 1990-91 squad that was 47-22-11 for 105 points -- was powered by Hull's 86 goals and 131 points.
As much as his goal-scoring touch, it was Hull's off-ice charisma, and his electrifying presence on the ice, that packed both the old Arena and the new Kiel/Savvis/Scottrade Center. Tonight, as the Blues honor Brett Hull by raising his #16 to the rafters, we'll look at three players at different stages of development (minor pro, US college, and Europe) who have the potential to become a home-grown Brett Hull for this franchise. All current statistics are as of December 4, 2006.
Konstantin Zakharov (Peoria, AHL): There are some physical similarities, as Hull was listed at 5'11, 203 pounds, and Zakharov is listed at 6'01, 195 pounds. Also, like Hull, Zakharov was a prolific junior scorer. As a 19-year-old, Hull exploded for 105 goals in 56 games with Penticton of the BC Junior League. Zakharov didn't quite hit those totals, but at age 18 managed 33 goals in 55 games at a higher junior level, with Moncton of the QMJHL.
Both players are snipers first, although Hull's passing ability was somewhat underrated due to the emphasis placed on his lofty goal-scoring totals. Both are also perimeter players, in that they prefer to stay out of the main traffic areas, but will go to the net for scoring chances on occasion. Both have adequate size to play a more physical game, but tend to stay away from that style of play. Zakharov will, however, throw a check more often and more effectively than Hull did, and Zakharov has developed into a much more defensively-aware player than Hull was.
Zakharov's a handsome devil, but doesn't yet have the charisma, the "it" factor that made Hull such a phenomenon in St. Louis. He's only 21, however, and time is on his side if he can continue to round out his game, and learn to play at both ends without sacrificing his offensive creativity.
** Zakharov at age 21: Currently 12 GP, 3-1-4, 10 PIM.
** Hull at age 21 (1985-86): Minnesota-Duluth (WCHA), 42 GP, 52-32-84, 46 PIM.
T.J. Oshie (North Dakota, WCHA): At first glance, there would seem to be more differences than similarities between Oshie, a center, and Hull, a right wing. Oshie, at 5-10, 180 pounds, is a little smaller that Hull was, and as a center, Oshie is a more accomplished passer and playmaker than Hull was.
Where the two players are similar, however, is in their desire to be the absolute best they can be, and in their shot. Like Hull, Oshie has a cannon of a shot and also has a very heavy and deceptive wrist shot. Also like Hull, Oshie is adept at getting his shot off quickly and at any moment, from any point in the offensive zone. Hull was taught a work ethic by Brian Sutter, one of the absolute masters of that particular aspect of athletic prowess; Oshie has an innate, natural ability to push himself to excel, and to exceed expectations at every turn.
The two also share the WCHA as a coming-out party for their skills, Hull with the Bulldogs of Minnesota-Duluth, and Oshie with the Fighting Sioux of North Dakota, where he was 24-21-45 in 44 games as a freshman last year. Finally, both players have an electrifying presence on the ice, one that brings people out of their seats in anticipation of the next move. It remains to be seen whether Oshie has the same off-ice charisma as Hull, but that may come as the on-ice accomplishments continue to mount and Oshie continues his climb to the NHL.
** Oshie at age 19 (he'll be 20 on December 23): Currently 14 GP, 3-8-11, 8 PIM.
** Hull at age 20 (1984-85): Minnesota-Duluth (WCHA), 42 GP, 32-28-60, 24 PIM.
Juhamatti Aaltonen (Oulu Kärpät, Finland): The native of Ii, Finland shares more characteristics with Hull than either Oshie or Zakharov. Hull was a late-round draft pick (6th round, 117th overall in 1984) as was Aaltonen (9th round, 284th overall in 2003). Both are right-hand shots who play the right wing. Both gained notoriety as goal-scorers in junior (Aaltonen scored 76 goals in 97 games over three seasons in the Finnish junior league). And both are players who have had their work ethic and intensity questioned in the past.
Hull overcame those questions, and carved out a 19-year Hall of Fame NHL career. Aaltonen is still a work in progress, but he's making strides in his second season as a regular in the tough elite league in Finland. Aaltonen was asked last season to contribute offensively after Kärpät lost their scoring leader from 2004-05, and he responded with a solid rookie season of 13 goals and 25 points in 50 games. He's stepped up to the plate again offensively this year, has made great strides in improving his defensive awareness as well, and word out of Finland is that he's starting to develop the sort of "what-will-he-do-next" on-ice presence that sets the top scorers apart.
** Aaltonen at age 21: Currently 29 GP, 8-12-20, 34 PIM.
** Hull at age 21 (1985-86): Minnesota-Duluth (WCHA), 42 GP, 52-32-84, 46 PIM.
In the next issue of "Game Time," we'll take an early look at the 2007 Entry Draft, with some thoughts on players who may become "Tomorrow's Blues." Until then, check out archived "Tomorrow's Blues" columns and other prospect-related content at www.futurenotes.blogspot.com, 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.
Like any good system or piece of machinery, the Blues' development system has spare parts that are kept on the shelf in case of dire need. These may be parts that are a little worn out or out-of-date, but still serviceable... or they may be parts that might not be designed exactly for the current system, but could possibly be modified to fit in. All personal data (height, weight, etc.) is taken from the NHL Guide and Record Book 2007, or from various team websites, and all statistics are as of Tuesday, November 28.
Joel Perrault, C, shoots R, 6'01, 197, born 04-06-83. Recently acquired by the Blues on waivers from Phoenix, Perrault is still finding his way in the Blues' organization. He's described as a player with a nose for the net, and as a good team player, but he needs to develop his strength and tenacity on the puck in order to really stick at the NHL level. As a center, he'd be a Godsend for Peoria right now, but the NHL's waiver rules make it a risk for him to be reassigned long-term to Peoria, as Phoenix would very likely reclaim him.
Perrault didn't exactly get off to a flying start in his Bluenote career, as he was torched for a minus-3 in the disastrous 4-2 home loss to Columbus on November 9. He's been scratched for the Blues' last three contests, prompting speculation that his time in the organization may be coming to an end anyway. He's scoreless with a minus-4 in seven games with the Blues, and was 1-1-2 with a minus-2 and 8 PIM in nine games with Phoenix. During a two-game conditioning assignment to Peoria in early November, he was 0-2-2 with a minus-2 and seven PIM.
Trent Whitfield, C, shoots L, 5’11, 204, born 06-17-77. You can't really call Whitfield a "journeyman," since the Blues are only the second NHL organization he's ever played for (Washington being the other). He's bounced between the NHL and AHL every year since 2000, always being a first-line offensive threat in the AHL but not quite able to translate that success into scoring-line duty in the NHL.
At 29 years old, Whitfield isn't exactly a prospect any longer, but he is the sort of very useful veteran that you can assign to your minor-league affiliate as a scorer and a leader, and also be able to count on for limited stretches as a callup. That's exactly the role that the Estevan, Saskatchewan native has filled with the Blues since being signed as a free agent in 2005, the same role that Jamie Rivers was signed in the past off-season to fill on the defensive side. Injuries on the blue line have kept Rivers in St. Louis instead of Peoria, where he was intended to go, and a shortage of centers has kept Whitfield down on the farm, where he's currently 10-10-20 with a minus-2 and 22 PIM in 19 games.
Perrault and Whitfield are under contract to the Blues, for now. There are, however, other players in Peoria who are under contract to the Rivermen and not the Blues, but who hope to catch the eye of Blues' pro scouts and earn a roster spot and contract with the big team. That's the route that Curtis Sanford and Mike Glumac took to become members of the Blues' organization; here's a quick look at three players who hope to follow in their footsteps.
Kevin Croxton, F, shoots R, 6’03, 200, born 09-08-82. Croxton is a big kid from Calgary, and comes to the AHL following a stellar four-year career at Rensselaer (ECAC), where he was nearly a point-per-game player (57-86-143 in 147 games played) and a team leader. 27 of his career 57 goals were power-play tallies, and he scored the game-winner in ten of the Engineers' 62 total wins during his NCAA career. With Camrose of the Alberta Junior League in 2001-02, Croxton put up 38-48-86 totals and 42 PIM in 62 games while leading the Kodiaks to the Royal Bank Cup, the Canadian Junior "A" championship. He was invited to play for the Blues' entry in the Traverse City Prospect Tournament earlier this year, and won a contract offer from Peoria based on his play there. He's spent most of this year in Alaska, where he's 7-2-9 with a plus-4 and two minutes in penalty time over 12 games.
Charles Linglet, LW, shoots L, 6’02, 212, born 06-22-1982. The Montreal native spent his first two pro seasons (2003-04 and 2004-05) toiling for Alaska in the ECHL, where he had very respectable 48-69-117 totals, with 105 PIM, in 134 games. His performance there earned him a look in Peoria last season, and he made the most of it with 14 goals and 21 points in 38 games for the Rivermen. Linglet has always been a scoring threat, going back to his days as a top gun in the offense-minded QMJHL (108-152-260 and 143 PIM in 253 games for Baie-Comeau over four seasons), and he currently sits in third place in the Peoria scoring race, with 8-4-12 totals in 17 games, to go along with six minutes in penalties, a plus-1 mark, three power-play goals and a game-winner in Grand Rapids on November 17th.
Ryan MacMurchy, RW, shoots R, 6’02, 207, born 04-27-83. Unlike the other players in tonight's report, MacMurchy was actually drafted by the Blues (284th overall in 2002), but failed to earn a contract offer after a solid four-year career with the University of Wisconsin (WCHA), where he was a big part of a national championship winner last season. MacMurchy, like Croxton, was invited to play for the Blues in Traverse City, and earned a contract offer from Peoria after his performance there. At Wisconsin, MacMurchy was a physical, inspirational leader who also was able to chip in the odd goal (44-66-110 with a whopping 342 PIM in 172 games over four seasons), but the Regina native is still finding his niche at the AHL level. He does have one goal in four games played thus far, a game-winner vs. Iowa on November 5.
In the next issue of "Game Time," we'll pay tribute to Brett Hull by focusing on a few prospects hoping in the near future to take a run at his lofty scoring totals in a Bluenote. Until then, check out archived "Tomorrow's Blues" columns and other prospect-related content at www.futurenotes.blogspot.com, 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.
After several weeks, we've come to the end of our annual journey through the Blues' system from A to Z. We have one collegian, and four minor pros on tonight's menu. All personal data (height, weight, etc.) is taken from the Blues’ website, and all statistics are as of Saturday, November 25.
Mike Stuart, F/D, shoots R, 6’00, 194, born 08-31-80. Originally drafted by Nashville in 2000, the Blues signed Stuart as a free agent in 2002 after a collegiate career at Colorado College where he was 8-39-47 with 152 PIM in 140 games over four seasons.
Stuart comes from a hockey family; he has a younger brother following in his footsteps at CC, another brother with the Chicago Wolves, a sister playing at Boston College, and his father is a doctor and the chief medical officer for USA Hockey. He has been a fixture on the blueline at the AHL level for the last few years, and is a versatile player who can play forward or defense. He hasn't scored yet this year, but has six assists and 16 PIM in 19 games for the Rivermen. Stuart has had two cups of coffee with the Blues in past seasons, and may get one again this year if the injury big keeps biting the St. Louis blueline.
Ryan Turek, F/D, shoots R, 5’11, 170, born 09-22-87. Another player who is equally adept at defense or forward, Turek (no relation to former Blues' goaltender Roman) was the Blues' 4th round pick (94th overall) in the 2006 draft, and is currently playing at Michigan State (CCHA), where he is scoreless with a minus-3 and 6 PIM in 11 games this far for the Spartans.
Turek, a swift skater with a hard-nosed attitude who is always first to the loose puck, enjoyed a nice junior career with Omaha of the USHL. 2005-06 was his breakout season, as he managed 17-11-28 scoring totals in 52 games, with a plus-2 and 71 PIM while also wearing the "C" for the Lancers. The Southfield, Michigan native was also named MVP of the 2006 USHL All-Star Game, and served as captain for bronze medalist Team USA in the 2006 Viking Cup. At 5'11, 170 pounds, he would have had a tough time cracking the "old" NHL, but the new rules and new emphasis on skating and speed make Turek a player to watch for the future.
Patrick Wellar, D, shoots L, 6’03, 210, born 12-04-1983. The big defenseman, originally drafted 77th overall by Washington in 2002 and signed as a free agent by the Blues in 2004, is just a few days shy of his 23rd birthday. That means time is still on his side, but he will need to start making a move pretty soon if he doesn't want to be pigeonholed as a career ECHL'er.
Wellar has yet to really stick in the American League, but he was a key factor in the Alaska Aces' march to the Kelly Cup championship last year. The Carrot River, SK native played in all 22 playoff games for Alaska, and chipped in two goals, four points, and 30 PIM during the Aces' run. This year, Wellar has seen action in a pair of games for Peoria, where he has no points, 2 PIM, and a minus-2. He's fared better in Alaska, where he has 13 games under his belt with a goal, an assist, 26 PIM and an even plus-minus.
Jeff Woywitka, D, shoots L, 6’02, 209, born 09-01-83. A big rawboned kid from western Canada, Woywitka has found himself in the middle of two big trades in his brief pro career. Originally drafted by Philadelphia 27th overall in 2001, Woywitka was traded to Edmonton in his rookie pro year, along with draft picks, in exchange for Mike Comrie. Then, prior to the 2005-06 season, Woywitka was part of the package that the Blues received in exchange for Chris Pronger.
The Vermillion, AB native has been arguably Peoria's top defenseman so far this year, with 0-8-8 totals, a minus-3, and 8 PIM in 15 games for the Rivermen. He's currently up with the Blues, and picked up an assist in his first game up (at Vancouver on Nov. 17). Woywitka will be a free agent after this season, so this is the right time for him to start establishing himself as a legitimate NHL player. Being back with the Blues, and getting regular ice time, will go a long way towards accomplishing that goal.
Konstantin Zakharov, RW, shoots R, 6’01, 185, born 05-02-85. It's a long way from Alaska to Peoria, and going by way of Belarus makes the journey longer still... but last year's character-building experience may have been just what this youngster needed to finally realize his enormous potential. Zakharov, the Blues' third-round choice (101st overall) in the 2003 draft, started the 2005-06 season as the odd man out in the Peoria lineup. Two weeks of inactivity later, he was assigned to Alaska, where he was unspectacular in an eight-game cup of coffee. Frustrated at the lack of playing time, Zakharov returned to Belarus and his father's Junost Minsk club, where he found his scoring touch again with 14-15-29 totals and 78 PIM in 36 games.
Though many had given him up for lost as a prospect for the Blues, Zakharov paid his own way to the prospect camp at St. Louis Mills in July, and has gone to Peoria this season with a better attitude about the development process and the AHL in general. He has recently found his game with a pair of goals in the last week (2-1-3, minus-1, 6 PIM in 9 games total), and he has re-emerged as a legitimate prospect for an organization that needs all the young scoring forwards it can find.
In the next issue of "Game Time," we'll take a quick look at some players who aren't "official" prospects, but could follow the same path to prospect status as Curtis Sanford and Mike Glumac have. Until then, check out archived "Tomorrow's Blues" columns and other prospect-related content at www.futurenotes.blogspot.com, 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.
Continuing with our annual look at the Blues’ entire prospect development system, we have two Russians and a Swede on tap for tonight -- all youngsters who have been to North America and gone home, and a trio that could potentially make one heck of a forward line together. All personal data (height, weight, etc.) is taken from the Blues’ website, and all statistics are as of Thursday, November 23.
Timofei Shishkanov, LW, shoots R, 6’01, 209, born 06-10-83. On the surface, Shishkanov seems to have all the size and skill necessary to be a real blue-chip prospect. He's enjoyed success as a junior player -- gold medals at the 2003 World Juniors and 2001 U-18 World Junior, and an appearance in the Memorial Cup with Quebec in 2003. The Muscovite also has gotten a taste of the NHL with the Blues, after coming over last season in the Mike Sillinger trade. He skates like the wind and is known to play aggressively and physical when needed.
So what's the problem? According to observers, Shishkanov still lacks elite hockey sense, the ability that world-class players have to make the right on-ice decisions in a split-second. There are also lingering questions about his desire to push himself to be the standout he has the potential to be. At the moment, he seems content to be a big fish in a small pond back home in Russia, where he's 5-4-9 with a minus-3 and 57 PIM in 25 games for Vityaz Chekov of the Superleague. It's really 50-50 whether the Blues will be able to entice him back, and probably will not be able to do so without a firm promise of an NHL roster spot.
Alexei Shkotov, RW, shoots L, 5’10, 161, born 06-22-84. Taken in the second round (48th overall) by the Blues in 2002, the Elektrostal native has yet to make a real impact in North America, opting instead to ply his trade in Mother Russia for the most part.
After a solid year in the Quebec League with Moncton and Quebec in 2003-04, Shkotov started the lockout season in Worcester and was 6-6-12 with a plus-1 and 18 PIM in 23 games. A questionable penalty call and an even more questionable suspension, however, soured Shkotov on North American hockey; he left for Russia in mid-season, and has been there with Mytische Khimik ever since. The Blues thought they would have Shkotov back in the minors this year, but family issues kept him in Russia, where he has now signed on with UFA Salavat Ulayev after a falling-out with Khimik management. In 16 games with Khimik and UFA this year, Shkotov is 2-4-6 with a plus-3 and 12 PIM.
Shkotov has made a few appearances in North America, at several Blues' camps, and has impressed onlookers with his skill level and speed. There's no question he has the wheels and the hands to be an NHL player; the sticking point seems to be his lack of will to pay his dues in the AHL. Unless he morphs into Alex Ovechkin overnight, or things change drastically on the Blues' roster, Shkotov isn't likely to be handed an NHL roster spot without facing up to the need to do his time in the AHL first.
Carl Söderberg, C, shoots L, 6'03, 198, born 10-12-85. When Söderberg was drafted by the Blues in the second round (49th overall) in 2004, much was made of the fact that he had grown up a fan of the Blues and Blues' legends Brett Hull and Brendan Shanahan. Now that he's had a couple of years to develop in Sweden, Söderberg is giving indications that he's ready to make his move towards being that kind of scoring threat for the Blues.
In 2005-06, Söderberg finished 11th in the Allsvenskan (Swedish division two) scoring race, piling up a point per game and chipping in with solid physical two-way play (15-24-39, plus-24, 45 PIM in 39 games) for his hometown IF Malmö Redhawks, helping lead them into the qualification round and move up to the Swedish Elite League for this season. Söderberg was on record as saying he'd like to play a year in his hometown with an SEL club, but he ended up signing with the Blues in the off-season and being assigned to Peoria. The youngster was apparently not keen on being sent to the American League, however, and opted to return home to Sweden, where he sat for about three weeks until an agreement could be worked out between the Blues and Malmö that would allow him to play. And play he has, leading his club in scoring with 7-7-14 totals in 14 games played. He's also a plus-3 with four PIM, and has three goals on the power play. He's taken his faceoff prowess to the next level as well, with a solid 152 wins in 281 faceoffs (54%) thus far.
Like the other young Euros in tonight's report, Söderberg wants to play in the NHL and seems content to stay at home until he can do so. The Blues will certainly make an effort to bring him back over next year, and since he does still have a contract with the team, and since he will have achieved his stated goal of playing in the SEL with the hometown team, perhaps the way to that return will be smoother.
We'll wrap up our trip through the Blues' system in our next report. Until then, check out archived "Tomorrow's Blues" articles, and other prospect-related content, on the "Future 'Notes" blog at http://futurenotes.blogspot.com, 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.