Tuesday, April 14, 2009

2008-09 Euro Prospect Review, Part Two

(This article was originally featured in "St. Louis Game Time," Vol. 4 No. 10, November 21, 2008 in "Tomorrow's Blues with Brian Weidler")

In our last report, we took a look at some European prospects that could be considered the high end of the Blues' system across the pond -- Lars Eller, Simon Hjalmarsson, and Kristoffer Berglund.

Tonight, we'll focus on the three remaining prospects playing in Europe -- slick center Jori Lehtera with Tappara Tampere of the SM-Liiga, or Finnish Elite League; goaltender Hannu "Ears" Toivonen, playing in the same city as Lehtera with Ilves Tampere; and goaltender Reto Berra, plying his trade with HC Davos of the Swiss Nationalliga-A.

Jori Lehtera, C, shoots L, 6'2, 191, born Dec. 23, 1987 in Helsinki, Finland.

Finnish playmaker Jori Lehtera led Tappara in scoring this year, and is currently playing on an ATO contract in PeoriaThe Blues' fourth selection (65th overall) in 2008, Lehtera is an older prospect just a few weeks shy of his 21st birthday, but is more physically and mentally mature than the average prospect in the system.

A very skilled playmaker, Lehtera is a player who will almost always look to pass before taking the shot. His career numbers in the SM-Liiga bear that out: 107 games played through November 18th, 22 goals, 47 assists. Lehtera has the knack of being able to find his wingers from anywhere on the ice, and is most effective when he has the puck and can control the pace of the game.

The downside to Lehtera is that, at age 21, what you see is what you get for the most part. He will probably not ever develop a real goal-scorer's touch, but he can still make a good living setting up the scorers. Naturally, he will have to be placed on a line with at least one first-rate finisher in order to be most effective at utilizing his abilities; a checking-line role won't take full advantage of his playmaking abilities, although Lehtera is an adequate defensive presence. He is also not a physical player, despite having decent size, and will need to get stronger in order to fight through checks and big hits.

Last year was a breakout season for Lehtera, who finished with 13-29-42 totals in 54 games for Tappara ("battle axe" in Finnish). The Helsinki native also finished with a solid plus-7 mark, and only 22 minutes in penalty time. Tappara failed to make the SM-Liiga playoffs last season, however, and appear to be headed for a similar fate this year with an 8-14-3 record and 13th place in the 14-team league with almost half the regular season (runkosarja) played.

Lehtera is currently leading Tappara in scoring with 3-12-15 numbers in 25 games, but he has been held off the scoresheet in his last five games, and has not scored a goal since Oct. 30 vs. Lukko. This will be only his second full season in the SM-Liiga, so calling this year a sophomore slump is probably accurate.

Tappara has Lehtera under contract through the 2009-10 season, and the Blues do not appear to be in any hurry at this point to buy out his last year and bring him across the pond. That may change, however, if the Blues' forwards continue to lose man-games to injury.

Hannu Toivonen, G, catches R, 6'2, 200, born May 18, 1984 in Kalvola, Finland.

Hannu Toivonen's lost confidence may have returned after a solid season back home in FinlandTo say that the 2007-08 season was a disaster for "Ears" would be an understatement.

Toivonen appeared in 23 games for the Blues last season, managing only a 6-10-5 record in 1202 minutes played. 69 goals against on 566 shots equaled a 3.44 GAA and an 87.8% save percentage. Things weren't a whole lot better during a mid-season assignment to Peoria, where Toivonen was 6-4-0 in 11 games, with 33 goals against on 283 shots for a 3.17 GAA and an 88.3% save percentage.

Confidence has always been an issue with Toivonen, going back to his days with the Boston Bruins' organization. After two seasons in the AHL with Providence in 2003-04 and 2004-05, Toivonen was 44-34-7 with nine shutouts, a 2.15 GAA and a 92.7% save percentage. He spent the entire 2005-06 season in Boston, and was 9-5-4 in 20 games played with one shutout, a 2.63 GAA and a 91.4% save percentage, and seemed to be on the brink of establishing himself as one of the league's up-and-coming young goalies.

The 2006-07 season changed all that. Toivonen struggled with Boston, going 3-9-1 with a 4.23 GAA and 87.5% save percentage in spot duty, and even a 13-13-1 stint in Providence with a 2.37 GAA and 90.9% save percentage didn't restore his confidence sufficiently to keep the Bruins from swapping him to the Blues for reluctant Swede Carl Söderberg.

Toivonen's dismal performance in the St. Louis and Peoria nets last year has prompted him to return home to Finland, where he's currently the number one goalie for Ilves Tampere. His numbers this year are better -- an 8-12-2 record while appearing in all 23 games Ilves has played to date, 60 goals against on 599 shots for a 2.70 GAA and 89.9% save percentage, and one shutout -- but Finland is probably the best place for Toivonen right now considering the logjam the Blues have below the NHL level in goal. The Blues will give Toivonen as much time as he needs to get his confidence back, and if that happens and he is able to return to North America and get back on the path he was on in 2005-06, it's a plus for the organization.

Reto Berra, G, catches L, 6'4, 189, born Jan. 3, 1987 in Bulach, Switzerland.

Berra has been an enigma for the organization since being drafted 106th overall in 2006. He has been reasonably impressive in each of the three Development Camps he has attended in St. Louis, and he has excellent size and skills for the goaltending position, but every year he is returned to Switzerland to play a mere handful of games in a league that's not exactly one of the best or most competitive in Europe.

Swiss goaltender Reto Berra takes a breather during the Blues' 2008 Development Camp ('St. Louis Game Time' photo by Brian Weidler)Since the 2006-07 season, Berra has played a total of 23 games in the Swiss top league, and has been the backup to a 40-year-old veteran with one club, and to a youngster in his age group for another. This season with HC Davos, Berra has appeared in only five games, sporting a 2-3-0 record, a 2.89 GAA, and an 89.7% save percentage.

Berra's talent is being wasted in Switzerland, but there doesn't seem to be any room for him on either of the North American affiliates, and he probably hasn't played enough, or been seen enough, to be attractive as trade bait. Berra may end up being a textbook example of a player in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Next time in "Tomorrow's Blues," we'll take a look at where the minor-league affiliates are at the quarter pole of the season. 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.

Super Scandinavians Stuff the System for St. Louis

(This article was originally featured in "St. Louis Game Time," Vol. 4 No. 9, November 16, 2008 in "Tomorrow's Blues with Brian Weidler")

Over the last few years, Sweden and Finland have become a popular stop on the itineraries of the Blues' scouting staff. Since drafting the departed (and unlamented) Christian Backman in the first round of the 1998 Entry Draft, the Blues have drafted eleven players from Sweden, five Finns, and one each from Norway and Denmark. Two of these players (current Blue Patrik Berglund and Dane Lars Eller) were first-rounders, two more (Simon Hjalmarsson and the Lars Eller (L) and Simon Hjalmarsson skate up ice at the Blues' 2008 Development Camp (St. Louis Game Time photo by Brian Weidler)reluctant Carl Söderberg) were second-round selections, and three more (2008 pick Jori Lehtera, 2006 pick Jonas Junland, and 2001 pick Tuomas "Who?" Nissinen) were taken in round three.

Of course, the fact that both chief scout Jarmo Kekalainen and chief Euro scout Ville Siren are Finns may have something to do with the abundance of Vikings taken by the Blues in recent years... but it's interesting to note that Kekalainen and Siren have drafted only two of their countrymen (Juhamatti Aaltonen and Lehtera) since coming to the Blues in 2003. Also interesting to note is that none of the Scandinavians drafted by the Blues before 2006 are under contract to the organization at present.

Tonight, we'll focus on the three prospects playing in Sweden -- Eller with Frölunda of the Elitserien, or Swedish Elite League; Berglund with Luleå HC, also of the Elitserien; and Hjalmarsson with Borås HC of the Allsvenskan, or the Swedish equivalent to the American League.

A big "thank you" must go to a regular commenter on the Game Day Threads at the Game Time website and all-around good guy, Marcus Pettersson, for his observations "on the ground" of the prospects currently toiling in the land of Gustavus Adolphus and Volvos.

Lars Eller, C/LW, shoots L, 6'1, 198, born May 8, 1989 in Rodovre, Denmark.

Lars Eller will swap Frölunda green for St. Louis blue next season (photo by Mikael Kreutz)The Blues' first selection (13th overall) in 2007, Eller is considered one of the top prospects in the Blues' system at the moment. A versatile player who is equally proficient at center or left wing, Eller is under contract to the Blues, but is honoring the remainder of his contract with Frölunda, one of the top organizations in Sweden.

Scouting reports on Eller make note of his excellent skating ability, both in terms of breakaway speed and overall mobility. Also of note is Eller's puckhandling ability, his quick release, and creativity on offense. These attributes have served him well in Sweden, allowing him to pile up 29 goals and 77 points in 84 games at the J20 Superelit (Swedish major junior) level, but his success at the junior level has not fully translated to the Elite League level as yet.

In 17 games for Frölunda this year, Eller has three goals and six points, with an even plus/minus and 4 PIM. Respectable for a 19-year-old, but consider that Eller started the year like a house afire, with four points in his first four games, and has only a goal and an assist in 13 games since. Per our source in Sweden, Eller's ice time per game is decreasing, and "(m)any Frölunda fans feel that Eller's development has stagnated some, that he's not making the strides everyone's expecting. Hopefully he has more to give as the season goes on, but right now, he's not NHL material."

It's not just Eller that's slumping, however; it's the entire team. Frölunda, one of the wealthiest and best-staffed clubs in Sweden, is just 7-8-5 in 20 games, good for only ninth place in the 12-team Elitserien.

Kristofer Berglund, D, shoots L, 5'10, 180, born Aug. 12, 1988 in Umea, Sweden.

Selected in the fifth round (125th overall) by the Blues in last summer's Entry Draft, Berglund has been a star in the IF Björklöven system since age 15. Now skating for Luleå HC of the Elitserien, Berglund is a first-rate skater with speed and mobility, as well as a smart player with excellent hockey sense and on-ice vision.

No relation to fellow Blues' draftee Patrik, this Berglund is an offense-minded blueliner with a good shot, excellent stickhandling skills, and an ability to make the first pass out of the defensive zone. He racked up seven goals and 40 points in 68 career games with Björklöven's J20 squad, and posted 4-21-25 totals with the Allsvenskan club last season. This year, in his ElitserBlues' 2009 draftee Kristofer Bereglund takes a regular shift for Swedish Elite League club Luleå HC this season at age 19ien debut, Berglund is a very respectable 2-5-7 (one SHG,) with 8 PIM and a plus-4 mark as a 19-year-old playing with veterans ten years older than he is (including teammates and former Blues Jaroslav Obsut and Lubos Bartecko).

Per our source in Sweden, Berglund is "considered one of the biggest defensive talents in the country, definitely top 10 among defenders aged 20 and below," and he is popular with the Luleå fans as well as Swedish National Team coach (and former NHLer) Bengt-Åke Gustavsson. Gustavsson, our source notes, "likes (Berglund" a lot, and has invited him to several of the National Team's games."

Like Eller's club (Frölunda), Luleå HC is struggling a bit with an 8-8-4 record in 20 games, good for seventh overall in the Elitserien. Based on his performances to date, Berglund can be expected to help make that record better.

Simon Hjalmarsson (Jahl-mur-son), RW, shoots L, 5'11, 161, born Feb. 1, 1989 in Varnamo, Sweden.

For the Blues, the 2007 NHL Entry Draft may well end up going down in history as their best ever, at least at the top. Their three first-round picks in that draft included Eller, Ian Cole, and current NHLer David Perron, and in the second round they chose Michigan star Aaron Palushaj 44th overall after taking Simon Hjalmarsson with the 39th selection.

Second-round pick Simon Hjalmarsson led second-dvision club Borås HC in scoring this seasonHjalmarsson, according to our source in Sweden, "has officially emerged as a scoring threat in senior hockey. He's not a dominant player by any means, but he's very fast, hard working, and always looks to get the offense going." His team, Borås HC, started the Allsvenskan season with seven straight losses, but is 3-3-3 since then, and Hjalmarsson leads the way in scoring for the club with 6-8-14 totals and a plus-2 mark in 17 games. He has also won five of eight faceoffs taken (63%), and his six goals include a power-play marker, a shorthanded goal, and a game-winner.

When with Borås HC, Hjalmarsson is lined up most often with Islanders' 2008 draft pick David Ullström, and Atlanta draftee Nicklas Lasu (since assigned to Frölunda's J20 squad), and that Kid Line is considered the team's top line. Hjalmarsson has been out of Borås' lineup recently, skating for the Swedish Junior National Team, and he is expected to play a key role at the U-20 World Juniors next month.

Next time in "Tomorrow's Blues," we'll go back to Europe for a look at the Blues' prospects in Finland and Switzerland. 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.

Monday, April 13, 2009

New And Improved Rivermen Off To A Good Start in 2008-09

(This article was originally featured in "St. Louis Game Time," Vol. 4 No. 8, November 1, 2008 in "Tomorrow's Blues with Brian Weidler")

October was a pretty good month for Davis Payne and the Peoria Rivermen.

With nine games under their belt, and having survived the organizational goalie-go-'round along with the parent club, the Rivermen are a solid 5-3-1-0 for 11 points and the sixth spot in the Western Conference, and fourth place in the West Division behind the Rockford IceHogs (CHI) at 7-1-0-0, Chicago Wolves (ATL) at 5-2-1-1, and Iowa IceHogLogoRipoffs (ANA) at 6-4-0.

The Rivs started October with a pair of tough losses to Iowa in a home-and-home series, but closed out the month on a three-game win streak, capping it off with a 4-2 win over the Quad City Flames on Halloween. Czech import Marek Schwarz went the distance in net for Peoria, stopping 27 of 29 shots against for his first win of the year, improving his AHL record to 1-2-0, and his GAA and save percentage to 4.05 (from 5.13 before Friday night) and 86.0% (from 82.5%).

Payne's club has 31 goals for, and 27 against, in the nine games played to date, and the power play has been a driving force behind the offense. In 67 chances so far, the Rivermen have 14 goals, which ties them with Rockford for the highest raw goals-for total on the power play. 14 of 67 equals a 20.9% success rate on the power play, good for a sixth-place tie in the league with division rival Milwaukee. In five home games, the Rivermen are scoring at a 25.7% clip with the man advantage (9 of 35), good for sixth place, while away from the friendly confines of Carver Arena, the boys are 5-for-32 for a 15.6% success rate (11th in the AHL).

All in all, not too shabby for a team that's seen a lot of turnover since last season, in the front office and on the ice.

"I think that we've accomplished what we wanted to and addressed the weaknesses of our club from last year," noted Payne. "We didn't feel like the (team) mobility was as good as it needed to be in this league, especially with the way the game is played now. We feel like we've got pretty good mobility on the back end, with the ability to distribute the puck."

"As far as our group up front," Payne continued, "we wanted to have guys that could play the game in all different styles. We feel we're a little bit bigger up front, and we can play a grinding game if necessary, but (we) also have the right ability to finish off plays and we feel we've got a good grit element to our game."

"The concern has been some inconsistent play by some guys early, but that's why we're here (in the AHL)."
Peoria scoring ace Steve Regier stands his ground in front of the Houston Aeros' net ('St. Louis Game Time' photo by Brian Weidler)
Several players have, fortunately, been anything but inconsistent in the early going. 24-year-old Steve Regier, an AHL veteran signed from the Islanders this summer as a free agent, has been "Mr. October" for the Rivermen, with 7-4-11 totals (3 PPG, 2 GWG) in nine games. The 6'4, 195-pound Regier is tied for second in the AHL in goals scored, trailing only Hershey's Alexander Giroux, who has nine.

"He's doing a lot of things well," Payne said. "His first couple of games, it didn't really feel like he was up to speed. But he got past that, and you talk about his last six, seven games, he's been very consistent in all the right areas. He's very conscientious defensively and positionally, he has good speed, good skills, and the ability to make plays. We've been really pleased with him all around; he's provided us with a lot.

Throw in contributions from Julian Talbot (5-4-9, 14 PIM, 4 PPG in nine games), emerging young star Nikolay Lemtyugov (2-7-9, plus-1, 2 PPG), and Dallas import Chris Conner (4-3-7, 2 PIM, 3 PPG in eight games), as well as steady veterans Trent Whitfield (2-5-7) and Cam Nikolay Lemtyugov (4) and Julian Talbot work the power play for Peoria vs. the Lake Erie Monsters ('St. Louis Game Time' photo by Brian Weidler)Paddock (3 G), and the Rivermen are getting offense from every line so far.

On the blueline, the mobility and puck distribution Payne spoke of has been prominently featured, especially since the assignment of rookie Jonas Junland (who is said to be held in very high regard by Blues' management) and the return of Jeff Woywitka to central Illinois.

Since being sent to Peoria last week, after missing almost six weeks with a broken bone in his right foot, Woywitka has been nothing short of dominant in a Rivermen sweater. In just three games, Woywitka has five assists, is a plus-2, and has been logging big minutes as the de facto number one defenseman in Payne's lineup.

"Obviously, with Jeff Woywitka, he's a guy with great feet (skating ability) and he can really dominate at this level with his feet," said Payne. "He hasn't played much, and his game conditioning may be not there yet, but when he's up and going, he's a premier guy at this level with his ability to skate and defend, move the puck, shoot the puck... he gives us a lot of options back there."

The goaltending has been top-notch for the Rivermen as well in the month of October. Schwarz had a rocky start, but showed there's still a place for him in the organization by preserving a shutout for fellow prospect Ben Bishop while in St. Louis, and by being reassigned to Peoria with the intention of being top dog there for the time being.
Chris Holt stands tall in the Rivermen nets as team captain and leader Trent Whitfield moves the puck out of danger ('St. Louis Game Time' photo by Brian Weidler)
Unheralded Chris Holt came over from the Rangers' organization in midsummer, and got the call from Alaska when the Blues' goaltending stable got bit by the injury bug. His work in a pinch in Peoria (2 GP, 2-0-0, 2.00 GAA, 91.5% save percentage) earned him an NHL contract from the Blues just the other day.

"For a guy that played half a period here in training camp, and played one game in training camp up in Alaska, he's come in here and given us exactly what we needed," Payne commented. "He's solid, he makes big saves when needed; all the saves you expect your guy to make, he was there for us. Doesn't give up a lot of rebounds; he made a couple of miscues on some pucks, but really, he gave up four goals (in a weekend series with Lake Erie), and one went in off of us, off of a faceoff, and that's a pretty good performance against a pretty good offensive group."

Next time in "Tomorrow's Blues," after the road trip, we'll take a look back at the early season for the European 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.