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.

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