Sunday, November 23, 2008

Blues' Defense Depth Not Trickling Down to Rivermen ... Yet

(This article was originally featured in "St. Louis Game Time," Vol. 4 No. 5, October 24, 2008 in "Tomorrow's Blues with Brian Weidler")

The Blues are currently ranked the number one developmental organization in the NHL by the staff of the Hockey's Future website, in large part on the strength of their defense prospects. Three of the six players chosen by the Blues in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft over the last three seasons have been defensemen, and in those drafts the Blues have chosen a total of seven defensemen with picks in the top 100 each year.

Of course, a huge chunk of the Blues' future on defense is currently on the shelf, with first-rounders Erik Johnson (golf cart knee) and Alex Pietrangelo (cheap shot from Ryan Hollweg) on the injured list, and 2006 second-rounder Jonas Junland just about to return from a pre-season injury.

The loss of these players' services has resulted in players remaining in St. Louis this year -- Roman Pola'k, Steve Wagner, Jeff Woywitka and veteran Mike Weaver -- who would likely have otherwise been assigned to Peoria. Woywitka has since been sent down, and will play tonight for the Rivermen, but his presence in St. Louis has been a contributing factor to Peoria GM and Blues' Pro Scouting Director Kevin McDonald having to scrounge up defensemen on AHL contracts and pro tryouts in order to fill gaps in the lineup.

None of the three Blues-contracted defensemen currently in Peoria have scored a goal yet, and none have more than a single assist. All, however, bring something a little different to the table in terms of their experience and their style of play.

The youngest of this trio is rookie T.J. Fast, a former second-round pick of the L.A. Kings in 2005. Acquired by the Blues this summer in exchange for a fifth-round pick in the 2009 Entry Draft, the 6'2, 190-pound Fast is what his name implies, described by the McKeens Hockey Prospects website as "an agile and compact skater." The Calgary native left the University of Denver midway through his sophomore season in 2006-07 and landed with the Tri-City Americans of the WHL, where he blossomed into an offensive force at that level with 20 goals and 76 points in 97 career games.

Fast has been a healthy scratch for Peoria in several games thus far, largely due to some issues in the defensive end of the rink. McKeens correspondent Max Geise described him earlier this month as "a train-wreck defensively that runs around and chases after the puck while getting trapped up-ice and out of position routinely." Fast has a lot of skill, however, and will be given every chance to make the transition from the major junior game to the AHL.

Second-year man Alexander Hellström had a promising rookie season last year with Peoria, where the big (6'2, 207) Swede managed more goals (3) as a North American rookie than he scored in three seasons with IF Björklöven of the Allsvenskan from 2204-05 to 2006-07. Injuries limited Hellström's season to just 35 games, however, so the big southpaw is looking to stay healthy and continue his progress this year.

Big Swede Alex Hellström gets set to unload a shot from the high slot for PeoriaMcKeens describes Hellström as a "stay-at-home defenseman with a blossoming game in his own end." Strong as an ox, Hellström establishes himself in front of his net and is effective at keeping that area clear for his goalie. He's also a pretty good penalty killer, makes a good first pass, and is a very good shot blocker. All in all, as McKeens notes, Hellström is "a much more polished defender (this year) compared to last year."

The last of the Blues-contracted players in Peoria is veteran Andy Wozniewski. Signed as a free agent by the Blues this summer, the 28-year-old journeyman provides NHL-caliber depth for emergencies, and solid veteran leadership on Peoria's blueline. Wozniewski has great size at 6'5, 225 pounds, but he has yet to learn how to use that size effectively enough to keep a job in the NHL, and has also been plagued by injuries in his pro career.

Of course, the last line of defense is the goaltender, and the Blues' organization is pretty deep in that area as well. The two men who will stand between the pipes for the Rivermen this year are a study in contrasts.

Third-year pro Marek Schwarz has been consistently inconsistent during his time in Peoria. His record in three seasons is just above .500 at 33-28-2, and his goals-against average has been around the 2.77 mark in both of the previous seasons, though it currently stands at 5.17 thanks to a less-than-stellar outing against the Iowa Chops in the season opener on Oct. 10.

Schwarz is as athletic as they come in goal, and is in and out of the splits, and up and down in the butterfly, with lightning speed. The major issue with Schwarz has been a tendency to over-commit and be caught moving the wrong way; he is usually able to recover and make the save, but is then vulnerable to the rebound he leaves in doing so. There has been some concern about his mental toughness as well, but to his credit, Schwarz has enlisted the services of a sports psychologist in an attempt to address those issues.

Chosen 17th overall by the Blues in 2004, Schwarz is only the third goalie ever chosen by the Blues in the first round, and the first since John Davidson in 1973. The Blues still have high hopes for Schwarz, but this year could well be said to be a make-or-break season for him in the organization.

Schwarz will get plenty of chances to strut his stuff in the next few weeks, as fellow prospect Ben Bishop has been recalled to the Blues while Chris Mason recovers from an emergency appendectomy. Bishop, who can block out the sun at 6'7, 205 pounds, literally gives opponents nothing to shoot at when he is out of his net and challenging the shooter, and has the athleticism to recover quickly from the butterfly back to a standing position.

Big Ben Bishop has had a cup of coffee with the Blues, and looks to solidify his position as the franchise's goalie of the future in 2008-09Mentally tough, composed and confident, Bishop is adept at showing opponents a five-hole that looks like the Arch from the blueline, and then closing it up in the blink of an eye. Further, Bishop is also an outstanding puckhandler and offensive catalyst from his crease, often taking advantage of opposition line changes to fire breakout passes to his teammates.

Bishop appeared in five games for the Rivermen last season after completing an outstanding four-year career at the University of Maine, and has already been the subject of some AHL Rookie of the Year speculation. There are still areas of his game that need work -- rebound control and lateral quickness, for example -- but the sky is the limit for Bishop at this point.

Next time in "Tomorrow's Blues," a look at some of the Blues' top NCAA college prospects. 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.

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