Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"Game Time" -- 2006: The Year Of The Prospect

(originally published December 30, 2006)

As we prepare to turn the calendar page to 2007, it’s time to take a quick look back at what some of the Blues’ prospects have been able to accomplish in 2006.

The 2006-07 season began on a high Note, prospect-wise, as the Blues were able to add some quality prospects to the fold in the 2006 Entry Draft. Six of the nine players chosen by the Blues in June are ending the 2006 calendar year by performing in the World Junior Championships in Sweden, ranking the Blues in a three-way tie for first place among NHL teams with the most prospects appearing at the U20 WJC.

Twenty-fifth overall pick Patrik Berglund has a goal and an assist and is a plus-1 for Sweden. Jonas Junland has an assist and 12 PIM for the Swedes and Alexander Hellström is playing his usual effective stay-at-home defensive game. Thirty-first overall pick Tomas Kana also has a goal and an assist, but his Team Czech Republic squad is winless thus far. Reto Berra has played both games for underdog Switzerland, with a 4-1 win over Belarus and a 6-0 loss to a powerhouse Russian squad. Berra sports a 3.50 GAA and an 89.4% save percentage.

Future franchise defenseman Erik Johnson has a goal for winless Team USA, one of only four goals scored by the disappointing American squad in the tournament so far. Johnson has made some excellent plays on offense and defense, but committed one well-publicized gaffe by throwing his stick at Canada’s Jonathan Toews on a breakaway, after Johnson’s defense partner turned the puck over at center ice. The resulting penalty shot added to the Canadian lead in the game.

Down on the farm in Peoria, first-year Rivermen mentor Dave Baseggio has put together a squad that is currently in fifth place in the AHL’s West Division and holding down the eighth seed in the Western Conference with a record of 16-12-1-2 in 31 games. Twenty-nine-year-old Trent Whitfield (30 GP, 15-14-29) and 27-year-old Peter Sejna (30 GP, 10-19-29) are leading the Peoria scoring parade, and the newly-signed (on December 27) Charles Linglet is right behind. The 6’2, 212 pound 24-year-old LW leads the Rivermen in goals with 16 (six on the power play), and has 24 points an even plus/minus and 12 PIM to add to the mix. RW Mike Glumac has nine goals, as does rookie David Backes, who is currently looking to establish himself as a full-time NHLer with the Blues.

On defense, the Rivermen have gotten only two goals from the blueline, both off the stick of rookie Roman Pola'k. Tomas Mojzis (12) and Jeff Woywitka (11) have hit double figures in assists. In goal rookie Marek Schwarz has been a rock wall. In 19 games played, the young Czech is 12-5-0 with a 2.60 GAA and a 90.1% save percentage. He has taken the bull by the horns and snatched the number one goaltender spot from under the nose of third-year man Chris Beckford-Tseu, who has been dominant at the ECHL level (5GP, 0.79 GAA, 96.9% save percentage, 5-0-0 record with Alaska this season), but has struggled a bit in the American League.

Peoria as a team has shared the wealth on the scoreboard this year, with game-winning goals coming from Whitfield and Jon DiSalvatore (three apiece), Linglet and Backes (two each), and Sejna, Glumac, Ryan Ramsay, Pola'k, and rookies Michal Birner and Ryan MacMurchy (one each). The Rivermen have appeared in only two shootouts this year, both road losses (at Albany and Chicago).

Some of the Blues’ older European prospects are making their marks in their respective leagues. In Finland, Juhamatti Aaltonen is a top-six forward in his second season at the Finnish elite level, and is 10-13-23 with a plus-1 mark and 36 PIM in 33 games for Oulu Kärpät. The Blues will lose the rights to the 21-year-old in June 2007, so if he ever wants to make the move to North America, the time is at hand.

Over in Mother Russia, Viktor Alexandrov was cut by SKA St. Petersburg in early December, after the coach who brought him there was fired. Alexandrov has caught on with MVD Podolsk, also of the Superleague, and in 21 games between the two teams, the just-turned 21 year old is 1-12-13, with 18 PIM and a plus-2. Elsewhere, in 32 games for Severstal Cherepovets, Nikolai Lemtyugov is 5-5-10 with 34 PIM and a plus-4 mark. He will turn 21 on January 15, and would do his career a favor by coming to North America for good next year.

Another candidate to cross the pond for 2007-08 is defenseman Nikita Nikitin. The 6’3 blueliner has put on over twenty pounds of muscle this year, going from 173 to 196 pounds, and his Avangard Omsk club is reaping the benefits of his development. Avangard is second in the RSL with a 24-5-7 mark, and Nikitin has chipped in a goal and 12 assists to go along with 60 PIM and a plus-4 in 36 games played.

In major junior, the Blues have four prospects out in the Western League who are all in their last year of junior eligibility. Right wing Ryan Reaves of Brandon (39 GP, 9-13-22, plus-7, 52 PIM, 2 SHG, 2 GWG), center Nick Drazenovic of Prince George (33 GP, 7-21-28, minus-6, 40 PIM), and defensemen Scott Jackson of Seattle (36 GP, 3-16-19, plus-16, 32 PIM, 3 PPG, 2 GWG) and Mike Gauthier of Prince Albert (37 GP, 2-11-13, plus-1, 154 PIM) are all better than even money to take their places in Peoria next fall, and continue their development into sound role players for the Blues.

Finally, at the NCAA level there has been some buzz recently about big Ben Bishop, the St. Louis native tending goal for the University of Maine, possibly turning pro next season. The thinking here is that Bishop’s 11-3-2 record 1.90 GAA and 93.2% save percentage notwithstanding, the sophomore would probably be better off to finish college first and avoid the logjam the Blues currently have in goal at the professional level. Another sophomore, forward T.J. Oshie of North Dakota (19 GP, 5-12-17, 8 PIM), has also been rumored to be turning pro, and considering the Blues’ dearth of skilled forwards in the minor pro ranks right now that might be the best thing for his career.

In our next edition of “Tomorrow's Blues”, we’ll have a conversation with the man who’s shaping the development of the Blues’ young players in Peoria, head coach Dave Baseggio. Until then, check out archived “Tomorrow’s Blues” articles and other prospect-related content on the “Future ‘Notes” blog at 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.

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