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A Winning Formula

by Larry Wigge / St. Louis Blues
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T.J. Oshie bowled over Columbus power forward Rick Nash -- twice -- in a game late last season, and he has bowled over even more scouts who said he was too small and played against weak competition at Warroad High School before the St. Louis Blues picked him 24th in the first round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

For the record, Oshie was 5-9, 170 pounds when he was drafted. When he reported to Blues orientation and development camp in St. Louis July 8-11, he was 5-11 and 201 pounds and working to get bigger and stronger after opening a lot of eyes around the NHL last season with his work ethic and the way he fearlessly challenged opponents of all sizes en route to 14 goals and 25 assists in 57 games as a rookie.

"From Draft Day in 2005 to today has almost been surreal," Oshie said. "You picture your journey growing up, but you don't realize how much work it really takes to make it to the NHL.

"It's more than just improving as a player. It's learning how to get stronger, learning how to eat right, plus have the confidence to compete against men."

And that is just a part of the inside-the-game and outside-the-box look at the evolution process teams face each day, from the time they announce a prospect's name at the draft to the first day that youngster competes at the NHL level.

Jarmo Kekalainen, the Blues assistant GM and director of amateur scouting, has been picking the future for hockey in St. Louis since the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. He looks at the process as walking on a campus and finding the next Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk or Dr. Martin Luther King -- only Jarmo and the Blues scouts are asked to pick a prospect when he's just 16, 17 or 18 … with no guarantees.

The Blues' drafting has earned them the top spot on's list of top organizations for the last two seasons as Kekalainen and Co. try to follow in the skateprints of the draft-savvy Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks, who have a combined three berths in the conference finals and two trips to the Stanley Cup Final in the last two years.

"I've never had the opportunity to pick a Mario Lemieux, a player who has all the physical attributes and skills to step right into the NHL and dominate a game," Kekalainen said. "Rarely, in fact, do you find any kid who is physically ready to step into the NHL and make an impact.

"To me, we're charged with the opportunity to identify skill, hockey sense, character and intelligence in a youngster and then calculate his future. We try to find players with the upside who can become an impact player. You might get a guy that will make your team right off the bat. But you can't get carried away with that. It's not a guessing game. It's the science of finding the players who are going to have the best career. If it takes four years to get him to the NHL, but he plays 12 years in the League, I'd much rather take that guy than the guy that makes it in the League the next year, plays 100 games and then vanishes. I could give you 100 examples of that."

It's the logic that led to drafting players like David Backes and Lee Stempniak (2003), Roman Polak (2004), Oshie (2005), Erik Johnson and Patrik Berglund (2006), David Perron (2007) and Alex Pietrangelo (2008).

The Blues selected Erik Johnson first overall in 2006. Johnson is one of several players the team has drafted and developed. (Getty Images).
It's one thing to find that kind of player with a top-10 pick, but Oshie was the 24th pick in his draft class, Berglund 25th in his draft and Perron 26th in his year. And all three made a major impact for the Blues last season. This year's potential impact youngsters include Pietrangelo, a defenseman who made the Blues in training camp last season and played eight games in the NHL before being returned to his junior team in Niagara Falls, Notre Dame defenseman Ian Cole, who continues to decide if he's going to turn pro and go back for his junior season with the Fighting Irish, and center Lars Eller.

And there's another round of prospects waiting to make an impact. After the Blues picked Eller, Cole and Perron in the first round of the 2007 Draft, they came back with second-round wingers Simon Hjalmarsson and Aaron Palushaj and third-rounder Brett Sonne, all of whom flashed talent at the World Junior Tournament in Ottawa last December.

But a lot goes into the journey of a player from draft day that isn't always seen by a hockey fan looking on from afar.

"Just like there's the development of a player's skills through coaching, we have stressed the growth and development of a player's body as well," Kekalainen said. "In this day and age, we're asking these youngsters to play against men before they've become men."

Added Blues President John Davidson: "There are so many roads a youngster can choose after he's drafted, regarding training, nutrition, eating habits and suggestions from professionals to improve their skills. There's an investment in time and effort by both the player and the team. Improve or stand still. Players who want the help can get it from most teams. What I like the most is seeing the look on a youngster's face when he goes one-on-one with an NHL player, sees he can compete at this level and realizes all the work was worth it."

Blues coach Andy Murray spoke about the growing process with great conviction.

"Without the size and strength that he added in the last few years, Patrik Berglund would not have been here last season," Murray said. "Skills can only get a player only so far in this game today. You can pick out the players who have made a commitment to make over their physical appearance. And along with that, you see a comfort level and confidence in taking the next step to playing in the NHL.

"By the same token, you can see the other players who haven't worked at that part of their development. It stands out, if they work hard … and if they don't.

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