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Blues have surplus of talent

Tuesday, 08.26.2008 / 9:00 AM / Prospects

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer


T.J. Oshie gave up his fourth collegiate season in North Dakota to sign his first professional contract in May with St. Louis.
When John Davidson jumped from the broadcasters' booth in New York City to the president's chair in St. Louis, the Blues' newest executive brought with him one philosophy when it came to prospective NHL players.

"Try to accumulate as many as possible," Davidson told NHL.com.

Thanks to some sharp drafting, including many shrewd trades on draft day, the Blues not only have a lot of prospects, they have a bevy of high-end youngsters, some of which are expected to make the jump to the big club for the 2008-09 season.

The Blues, who haven't made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the post-lockout NHL, appear headed in the right direction with their surplus of talent peppered throughout the organization.

Here is a positional breakdown of the prospects the Blues' brass is high on.

CENTER

T.J. Oshie -- The Blues' first-round pick in 2005 may play the wing before he gets to center his own line, but the bottom line is the Blues expect Oshie to play in the NHL this coming season.

After three successful years at the University of North Dakota, Oshie gave up his fourth collegiate season to sign his first professional contract in May. Davidson said he will be given every opportunity to make the Blues' roster coming out of training camp.

"He's a dogged hockey player and a smart hockey player," Davidson said. "He can make plays at top speed. He can play the wing or center ice. There is nothing not to like about him."

Oshie, who is 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, showed remarkable consistency at UND. He had 45 points as a freshman, 52 as a sophomore and 45 again as a junior, but he told NHL.com that if it weren't for some injuries his junior numbers would have been even better. As it is, he led the Fighting Sioux to the Frozen Four for the third straight season.

Oshie was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award and a first-team West All-American as voted on by the American Hockey Coaches Association.

"Everybody comes to camp to compete for a job and he'll have to do the same thing," said Jarmo Kekalainen, the Blues Assistant GM and Director of Amateur Scouting. "He's been one of the best college hockey players in the country. He was a first-round draft pick. Those are the things that build the expectation and I think he has those expectations for himself, but it does come down to how he does in September."

Patrik Berglund -- Just like Oshie, Blues fans could see Berglund in St. Louis this season if he has a successful training camp. Davidson, Kekalainen and GM Larry Pleau are banking on that happening.

"He's got a good chance to be on our club next season," Davidson said of the team's first round pick in 2006. "He has a great chance to be a top-six forward in the NHL."

Berglund has already been through the paces of a Blues training camp and played in NHL exhibition games, but after showing some promise last season, he returned to Sweden to honor his contract with Vasteras in the Swedish Elite League. He finished the season with 45 points and also was one of the top players in the 2008 World Junior Championships. Berglund finished the tournament with seven points and a plus-3 rating, helping Sweden reach the gold-medal game against Canada.

"There are obviously high expectations for him, and he's really committed to getting great results," Kekalainen said. "He's already a tall guy, almost 6-4, and having seen the commitment he has made to getting bigger and stronger is great to see for a guy who has all the skill and talent."

Lars Eller -- He may still be a year or two away, but Eller may also be the best prospect in the Blues' system. The Danish winger, who was the 13th overall selection in the 2007 draft, is known for his creativity and playmaking ability.

Eller played this past season for Frolunda in Sweden. He spent 14 games with the big club in the Swedish Elite League and had two assists. Davidson said the scouts believe Eller's upside "is immense," and added, "We can hardly wait."

Eller will likely head back to Sweden to play another season.

"He's a little ways away yet," Davidson said. "He's a creative forward, centerman mostly. He's got real good skating legs. Our scouts are really high on him."

Nicholas Drazenovic -- Drazenovic made good strides in his first season of pro hockey with 42 points and a plus-13 rating over 66 games for St. Louis' top minor-league affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen of the American Hockey League.

Drazenovic, a sixth-round pick in 2005, has grown since his draft year. He's now about 6-foot and 180 pounds.

"He's a very smart player," Kekalainen said. "He's one of those guys that wasn't real big when we drafted him, or even going into first pro year, but he is making great strides. The second year of pro will be a great challenge for him. Those guys that keep getting better and bigger and stronger have a chance."

Philip McRae had 46 points in 66 games this past season for the London Knights of the OHL.
Philip McRae -- McRae was the Blues' second pick in 2008 and the 33rd overall selection. He is the son of Blues scout and former NHLer Basil McRae.

McRae had 46 points in 66 games this past season for the London Knights of the OHL. The Minnesota native was at his best in the Under-18 World Championships with three goals and three assists and a plus-4 rating for Team USA.

"He didn't have a great season last year in London, but he had the good tournament," Basil McRae said. "I think he'll have a great couple years in London and really develop and be ready to turn some heads in a couple years."

LEFT WING

Jay Barriball -- Barriball had a scintillating freshman season at the University of Minnesota with 43 points in 44 games during the 2006-07 season. However, his numbers dipped to just six goals and 15 assists for 21 points in 41 games this past season.

Barriball, who was a seventh-round pick by San Jose in 2006 and traded to St. Louis in the Bill Guerin deal in February 2007, is headed back to Minnesota in the fall to right whatever went wrong.

"He had a disappointing year and he would be the first one to admit it now," Kekalainen said. "He needs to have a great summer and go back to get back to the level he was at. He's a skilled player, a scorer and not very big (only 5-9, 160 pounds) so he has to be strong and explosive. Maybe he expected things to happen on their own after having a great year. Those small guys need to keep beating the odds all the time."

RIGHT WING

Simon Hjalmarsson -- Hjalmarsson, like Eller, is also a 2007 draft pick who plays for Frolunda in the Swedish Elite League. Hjalmarsson, who was picked in the second round, played in only one game in the SEL this past season and is likely headed back for more grooming.

Hjalmarsson is considered a goal-scoring prospect for the Blues. At 19, he's still far away from being NHL ready, but the Blues have their eye on him.

Aaron Palushaj -- Palushaj, who was selected in the second round last year, finished his freshman season at the University of Michigan as a point-per-game player. He had 44 points in 43 games and helped get the Wolverines to the Frozen Four.

"I'm really excited about his first year after the draft," Kekalainen said. "He had a big role on a team that went to the Frozen Four. He played first power-play unit and had just a great year. He's a competitive kid, a smart hockey player with good instincts. He plays with an edge and his skating has improved. This kid wants to be a hockey player and that's the passion and drive we're looking for."

DEFENSEMEN

Alex Pietrangelo was seventh among all OHL defensemen in scoring last season with 53 points on 13 goals and 40 assists.
Alex Pietrangelo -- The Blues made Pietrangelo the fourth selection in June's draft and they are ecstatic to have him joining their first-class list of prospects.

Pietrangelo, who is 18 years old, was seventh among all OHL defensemen in scoring last season with 53 points on 13 goals and 40 assists while playing for the Niagara Ice Dogs. He was both an OHL All-Star and a CHL Top Prospect.

Pietrangelo, who is 6-foot-3 and 211 pounds, was the sixth-ranked North American skater. Davidson sees Pietrangelo as the perfect complement to Erik Johnson, who just finished his rookie season.

"We look down the road and we see an Erik Johnson paired with Alex and we see the puck coming out of our zone nicely," Davidson said. "We see a power play. We see a lot of good things. It was a real good pick. For us, it fit what our need was."    

Ian Cole -- The Blues love Cole's size and his offensive upside. He's 6-foot-1, 215 pounds and he's someone who simply loves to work out, which certainly makes Blues strength and conditioning coach Nelson Ayotte happy.

Cole, who was the 18th pick in 2007, finished his freshman season at Notre Dame with 20 points in 43 games. Davidson said Cole is "one of those players we're waiting for."

"We don't have to worry about him committing to strength and conditioning program," Kekalainen said. "He's a bull, strong as an ox. He just needs some more hockey under his belt. Going back to Notre Dame next year will be good for him. He's a great prospect."

Cade Fairchild -- Coming off a solid freshman season at the University of Minnesota, Fairchild is a player the Blues like because he sees the ice well and has good instincts. Fairchild is a good, back-end power-play guy as well.

Fairchild was second among Gophers defensemen with 15 points in 40 games. He was the only Gopher named to the WCHA All-Rookie team and was also selected to the Inside College Hockey freshman All-American squad.

Fairchild also played for Team USA at the World Junior Championships and had an assist. Kekalainen expects his production to increase in his sophomore year, but the Blues would like to see Fairchild build on his 5-foot-11, 186-pound frame.

"He's a small guy and he needs to know he has to be strong," Kekalainen said. "He might be quick and explosive enough for college or World Junior stage, but to do that in the NHL is different so he needs to get bigger and stronger."

Steve Wagner played in 24 games for the Blues this past season.
Watch Steve Wagner highlight video
Steve Wagner -- Wagner, 24, played in 24 games for the Blues this past season so he's still considered a rookie. Kekalainen said they were excited to see him progress as a first-year pro and believes the puck-moving defenseman proved he's an NHL skater.

Wagner finished with two goals and six assists for the Blues. He also spent a portion of the year in Peoria and on the injured list with a broken leg, an injury he suffered in February. The Blues are hoping Wagner cracks their top-seven rotation.

"He came to our development camp so he's committed to getting stronger," Kekalainen said. "He knows what he needs to do. I think we're really pleased with what we saw in his first year. I think he's a great prospect."

Alexander Hellstrom -- The Swedish blueliner, who was a seventh-round pick in 2006, played 35 games for Peoria last season, showing he's a defensive defenseman. He had three goals and two assists and was a plus-8.

"He has a great attitude and he's a great kid," Kekalainen said. "He plays solid defense. He's not flashy, but a competitor and a real good team player. He's a classical defensive defenseman, who takes care of his own end and battles hard."

Jonas Junland -- Another Swedish blueliner, Junland recently signed with the Blues after a solid season in the Swedish Elite League. He helped Linkopings reach the SEL Final and had 20 points in 52 games. He was a third-round pick in 2006.

"He's a skilled, smart puck-mover," Kekalainen said. "He was able to get a big role on his team that went almost all the way. He also played some games on the men's national team at the age of 20, and that's a heck of a year for a young defenseman from Sweden. We have big expectations for him coming into camp, but it's a different game and he won't be able to live on his skill and hockey sense anymore."

GOALTENDER

Marek Schwarz -- The Czech product is one of three goalie prospects the Blues like. He made his NHL debut in 2006-07, competing in a pair of games. He also played in two games this past season, but surrendered five goals on 13 shots in his second outing.

Schwarz was the Blues' first-round pick in 2004 when NHL Central Scouting had him rated as the No. 1 European goalie. He played his first season in North America in 2004-05 for the Vancouver Giants of the WHL and was 26-24-4.

Schwarz went back to the Czech Republic League in the next season and was 7-8 with a 2.57 GAA and a .920 save percentage for Sparta Praha. He has played mostly in Peoria for the last two seasons, compiling a 33-25-4 record.

As a result of the trade that brought Chris Mason to St. Louis, Blues' fans should expect Schwarz back in Peoria this season.

"When you have young goaltenders they just have to play," Davidson said. "The more they play, the better they are. Now we give him a chance to play."

Ben Bishop -- The Blues' third-round pick in 2005 finished his career at the University of Maine last season and made his pro debut with the Rivermen. He played in five games at the end of the year and went 2-2-1 with a 2.38 GAA and .908 save percentage.

Bishop was 55-35-7 with a 2.29 GAA in three seasons for the Black Bears. He was voted as a Hockey East second-team All-Star this past season despite a 13-18-3 record. His 2.43 GAA and .920 save percentage spoke volumes, though.

He and Schwarz will likely be competing for playing time in Peoria.

"If they earn it," Davidson said, "they're going to play in the AHL."

Jake Allen -- The Blues made Allen the 34th overall pick in last month's draft. He's heading back to the QMJHL to play his second season. Allen was 9-12 with a 3.14 GAA and .901 save percentage in 30 appearances for St. John's as a rookie last season.

Allen doesn't turn 18 until August so he is still very much a project for the Blues. Look for him to follow the course of playing more minutes in the QMJHL before moving to the ECHL, then the AHL, and perhaps one day to the NHL.

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com



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