(This article was originally featured in "St. Louis Game Time," Vol. 4 No. 1, October 10, 2008 in "Tomorrow's Blues with Brian Weidler")
In each of the last three seasons, a first-round draft pick has emerged from training camp with a spot on the Blues' NHL roster. In 2006, it was first-overall pick Erik Johnson, as expected. In 2007, the Blues struck gold from Quebec when 26th-overall selection David Perron lived up to his statements in Game Time that he would make the team out of camp, and dazzled teammates, coaches, and fans alike with his skill level.
This year, the hometown boys have yet another first-rounder looking to stick with the big club right out of camp, but the impact on the organization of the Blues' 2008 draft picks doesn't end there. From top to bottom, the Blues came away from Ottawa and the Entry Draft with quality at every position, and tonight we'll take a look at Jarmo Kekalainen's top three selections in this year's draft.
In the first round, with the fourth overall pick, the Blues rolled the dice on blueliner Alex Pietrangelo. The 6' 3, 210-pound native of King City, Ontario put up impressive scoring numbers (13-40-53 in 60 games, with 94 PIM and a sterling plus-29) for the Niagara Ice Dogs, and was playing his best hockey of the season in the playoffs before falling victim to a double whammy of mononucleosis and a ruptured spleen.
The mono and ruptured spleen kept Pietrangelo out of the workouts at the Scouting Combine, and also kept him off the ice at the annual Development Camp, but the Blues saw enough during the season to rank Pietrangelo at the top of their list for the Entry Draft.
"He's one of the best defensive prospects to come out of the draft since (Chris) Pronger," one NHL scout noted at the McKeens Hockey website, "and he even reminds some of Pronger other than the lack of a mean streak."
"Not many defensemen can offer the total package, and if Pietrangelo puts it all together, he'll be a franchise defenseman for 15 years."
Pietrangelo seems to have recovered fully from the spleen injury and mono, and has earned a spot on the Blues' roster out of training camp. Erik Johnson's injury has opened the door for Pietrangelo to play a lot of minutes early in the season, and if he continues to produce in the regular season as he did in the Blues' pre-season, the expected nine-game trial may well turn into a full-time roster spot.
Shrewd dealing by John Davidson and Larry Pleau left the Blues with back-to-back picks near the top of the second round, and the scouting staff took full advantage of this positioning by selecting Philip McRae of the London Knights (OHL) with the 33rd overall selection, and goaltender Jake Allen of the St. John's Fog Devils (QMJHL) at number 34.
McRae, son of former Blue Basil McRae, is a streaky player; in December and January of last season, he managed 22 points in 21 games (5 G, 17 A), the followed that performance with a February in which he scored five goals in 13 games, but collected no assists and was a minus-5. He finished the season 18-28-46 in 66 games, a total considered "disappointing" by the staff of the McKeens Hockey Prospect website.
In the U-18 World Juniors, McRae was one of the leaders for Team USA with six points (3 G, 3A) in seven games, but at the USA World Junior Selection Camp in August, he managed only one goal and was generally ineffective.
It was later discovered that the reason for McRae's inconsistent play at the Evaluation Camp was that he had contracted mononucleosis, making him the third high-profile Blues prospect to come down with mono in the last year (Pietrangelo and second-year pro Nicholas Drazenovic are the others). At 6' 2 and 190 pounds, McRae has the size and strength to shake off a bout with mono, and he has returned to the ice in London in dramatic fashion, scoring what turned out to be the game-winning goal in a 4-2 victory over Saginaw last week.
Allen, a native of Fredericton, New Brunswick, was something of a late bloomer. Spending much of the 2007-08 season on the bench in St. John's behind Sharks' prospect Timo Pielmeier, Allen managed to post a nice 2.25 (14 GA in 374 minutes) with a 93.5% save percentage (201 saves) and a 2-2-2 record in his last six games for the 32-30-8 Fog Devils (now playing as Junior de Montréal).
Few expected the 6' 2, 175-pounder with the 8-9-4 record, 3.15 GAA and 90.1% save percentage for the season to make much of a mark in post-season play, but Allen did earn the Devils' only two wins of their first-round series, posting a 3.74 GAA and 85.5% save percentage in the process. Many were stunned when Hockey Canada's chief scout Al Murray included him on Canada's U-18 World Junior entry, but the poised and confident Allen took the opportunity and ran away with it.
Allen played all seven games for Team Canada at the World Juniors, and led his team to the gold medal with a performance made for Hollywood. In 420 minutes, Allen allowed 10 goals on 192 shots for a 1.43 GAA and a 94.8% save percentage. Oh, by the way, he also won six of the seven games, with only a 4-2 loss to host Russia in the preliminary round to mar his record, and posted a pair of shutouts, including an 8-0 whitewashing of the Russians in the championship game.
Allen didn't attend the Blues' Development Camp this year, but did join the team for the Traverse City Prospect Tournament (3.00 GAA, 90.9% save percentage, 1-2-0 record) and even saw action in the NHL pre-season against Los Angeles before being returned to junior. So far this year, Allen has won QMJHL Defensive Player of the Week honors once, and is 4-1-0 with a 2.80 GAA and 91.9% save percentage in five games.
Next time in "Tomorrow's Blues," we'll focus on the Blues' next three selections in June's Entry Draft; Finnish forward Jori Lehtera, budding OHL power forward James Livingston, and grinder Ian Schultz of the Calgary Hitmen. Until then, 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.