Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Ins and Outs of the Blues Prospect Stable

By BRIAN WEIDLER, "St. Louis Game Time" Prospect Department
(Originally published in "St. Louis Game Time," Vol. 3, No. 1, 10-10-07)

This past summer has been just about the most exciting time in recent memory to be a Blues' fan, and specifically to be interested in the player development side of the franchise's operation.

Starting with the Entry Draft in Columbus, the Blues have been hard at work separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, and replacing prospects who haven't made the grade with those who are younger, bigger, or simply have greater potential.

The Blues had three first-round selections in the Entry Draft this year for the first time ever in franchise history, and as documented by the Fox Sports Midwest "All Access Draft Special" aired this summer, they were able to use each of those selections to acquire a player that they had rated very highly. The deadline trades of Keith Tkachuk and Bill Guerin brought a plethora of picks back to the organization, and the Guerin trade also brought a highly-regarded scoring prospect into the fold. Other trades and free-agent signings over the summer also brought new prospects to the organization

Before we look at what the Blues have added to the roster over the last few months, let's first take a look at the prospects that the Blues have decided to part company with. Departing from the organization over the summer were:

Juhamatti Aaltonen, a scoring forward from Finland with 11-21-32 totals in 53 games for Oulu Kärpät of the Finnish Elite League last year. The Blues were interested in signing Aaltonen before the July 1 deadline, but his recent marriage and the birth of his first child made the timing wrong for this season. The whispers are that the Blues will try again to bring Aaltonen over next summer as a free agent.

Jon DiSalvatore, a veteran of the AHL and Peoria's third-leading scorer last year with 21-39-60 totals in 76 games. The native of Bangor, Maine signed with Phoenix in the off-season.

Zach FitzGerald, a big rugged defenseman who spent a lot of time on the injury and suspension list, and bounced between Alaska and Peoria, was traded to Vancouver.

Mike Gauthier, a big raw-boned defenseman from western Canada who was the Blues' fifth pick (169th overall) in 2005, failed to impress in his last year of junior eligibility and was not offered a contract.

Scott Jackson, the Blues' second-round pick (37th overall) in 2004, a big stay-at-home defenseman, never progressed as expected and was also not offered a contract after his last year of junior eligibility.

Doug Lynch, the third asset received by the Blues in the Chris Pronger trade, never played up to his potential in Peoria and was not tendered a qualifying offer during the summer.

Tomas Mojzis, who came to the Blues in the Eric Weinrich trade at the 2006 trade deadline. The offense-mended defenseman got a cup of coffee with the Blues in 2006-07, but signed with Russian side Sibir Novosibirsk over the summer.

Ryan Ramsay, a free agent center who managed 14 goals, 159 PIM, and a team-leading plus-16 for Peoria in 58 games last year, but lost his spot to an influx of younger, drafted players.

Peter Sejna, the eternal prospect who never put it all together sufficiently to become dominant at the AHL level or stick around as a role player in the NHL, was not tendered a qualifying offer.

Alexei Shkotov, the Blues first pick in 2002 (48th overall) who left the Worcester IceCats mid-season in 2005-06 after a questionable suspension, has been dropped by the Blues.

Carl Söderberg, who appears to be the latest in a long line of highly-rated European prospects who have apparently decided they'd rather stay at home and be a big fish in a small pond, was traded to Boston over the summer.

Patrick Wellar, a big kid from Carrot River, Saskatchewan who signed with the Blues as a free agent before the 2005-06 season. The defenseman has just signed with the AHL's Toronto Marlies.

Konstantin Zakharov, a skilled player with little apparent drive to pay the price to be an NHL'er, skipped out on the Blues twice in two seasons to return to his native Belarus. He has been dropped by the Blues as well.

The Blues also retain the rights to Russians Konstantin Barulin (Khimik Mytischi) and Timofei Shishkanov (CSKA Moscow), but as both are insistent upon one-way NHL deals for a million dollars a year before they will cross the pond, don't count on seeing them in St. Louis any time soon, if at all.

You could form the nucleus of a pretty decent AHL team with the players dropped from the Blues' prospect rolls over the summer. But, potent as that list of players may be, the list of prospects added to the organization over the summer is even more impressive.

Although the Blues weren't able to get Aaltonen signed before the July 1 deadline, they did get a number of other prospects signed to contracts and ready to embark on their pro careers. From Europe, the Blues signed draft picks Patrik Berglund (25th overall in 2006), Alexander Hellström (184th overall in 2006), Jonas Junland (64th overall in 2006), Tomas Kana (31st overall in 2006), and Nikolai Lemtyugov (219th overall in 2005) to contracts. Berglund and Junland have been returned to their Swedish sides for more seasoning, but are expected back in 2008-09 for the start of their pro careers. Hellström and Lemtyugov are beginning their rookie seasons in Peoria, and Kana will start the year in Alaska.

From this side of the pond, the Blues signed draft picks Nicholas Drazenovic (171st overall in 2005) and Ryan Reaves (156th overall in 2005) to their first pro contracts. Drazenovic, who boosted his stock considerably with a strong playoff performance for Prince George (WHL) in 2006-67, has been assigned to Peoria, and Reaves is in Alaska rehabilitating from an injury suffered at the Traverse City Prospect Tournament early in September.

Off-season trades brought forward Francois-Pierre Guenette (from Vancouver for FitzGerald) and goaltender Hannu Toivonen (from Boston for Söderberg) to St. Louis, and free agents signed in the latter part of the 2006-07 season include big left wing Charles Linglet (Peoria) and defense prospect Steve Wagner (Minnesota State-Mankato). Wagner was impressive in the Blues' Development Camp and main camp, and has begun the season on the NHL roster.

As an accompaniment to the blockbuster free-agent signing of Paul Kariya, the Blues added younger brother Martin Kariya to the organization as a free agent from... the Blues, of Espoo, Finland. Also coming over from Finland was 30-year-old veteran goaltender Juuso Riksman, who is currently on loan to a Swedish side as the goaltending picture in Peoria is a little crowded. Riksman may, however, have to return to North America because his former Finnish team (Jokerit Helsinki) is reported to be blocking his assignment to Farjestad due to time remaining on his contract with them.

North American free agents signed for depth in Peoria include defensemen Alex Brooks and Micki DuPont. In addition, the Blues signed Sudbury, Ontario-born veteran Jean-Guy Trudel from Ambri Piotta in Switzerland. Trudel has maintained a home in Peoria for years, married a Peoria girl, and will also be taking a regular shift for the Rivermen this winter.

An then, of course, there is the NHL Entry Draft. The Blues added three top prospects to the organization in the first round, as mentioned, and added a total of ten prospects to their ever-deepening prospect pool in this draft. The most notable of these is first-rounder (26th overall) David Perron, whom we at "Game Time" first took note of at the Development Camp when he told us that he was determined to make the team this year, right out of junior at age 18. Perron lived up to his bold statement, and after an impressive training camp and a series of exhibition games in which he seemed to be developing solid chemistry with veteran Doug Weight, also began the season on the NHL roster.

We'll take a more in-depth look at Perron, and the rest of the Blues' 2007 Entry Draft selections, in the next edition of "Tomorrow's Blues." Until then, as always, 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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