When St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's best coach following the 2011-12 season, he remarked that one of the best parts of his job was getting to work with so many young players.
In the past two seasons, that list included forwards Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo, and goaltender Jake Allen.
That list is going to continue to grow; the Blues have a bumper crop of prospects set to turn pro this season, with more than a few of them ready to fight for -- and potentially win -- NHL jobs.
Here's a look at St. Louis' top 10 prospects, according to NHL.com:
1. Dmitrij Jaskin, RW: The Blues got the big forward to agree to leave the Czech Republic to play for the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season, and the result was an outstanding season for the 2011 second-round pick (No. 41).
In 51 games, the 6-foot-2, 196-pound forward led Moncton and was fourth in the league in goals (46) and points (99). He had three goals and three assists for the Czech Republic at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship.
His strong play earned him a two-game stint with the Blues late in the season, and though he didn't have any points, he showed a tantalizing skill set. He also displayed an improved attitude, which has Blues director of player development Tim Taylor even more excited.
"His work ethic changed from 2011 to 2012-13, and last year he worked out hard," Taylor told NHL.com. "I went in with Nelson [Ayotte], our strength and conditioning coach [and] we spent five days in Moncton with him and he understood the concept of working out and making sure he's in better shape. He acknowledged he wasn't in great shape at the World Juniors prior to that and he spent most of the summer in St. Louis working out with Nelson. He's really taken a step in the work ethic and understanding what being a pro hockey player is all about."
With the trade of David Perron and retirement of Andy McDonald, there are spots open in the Blues' top-nine forwards, and Jaskin, 20, will be given a shot to win one of them.
"He's [6-2], he skates very well, he's put a lot of muscle into his game," Taylor said. "He's a guy that I feel, out of all our prospects right now, that can adapt to the NHL game right away because of his size. He plays a physical game … a heavy game. We haven't seen it in the NHL level, we only had two games at the end of the season, but he's a guy that I think can do it."
2. Ty Rattie, RW: A 2011 second-round pick (No. 31), Rattie is best known for his goal-scoring ability. The 6-foot, 178-pound forward had 48 goals in 62 games last season with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League, 20 in 21 WHL playoff games, and six in five games at the Memorial Cup. He had three goals in six games for Canada at the 2013 World Juniors.
Taylor said there are other things to like about Rattie's game.
"The thing that I don't think a lot of people realize about Ty Rattie until you watch him play consistently is that he's a lot better playmaker than people give him credit for," he said. "People look at his stats and say, 'Wow, what a goal scorer.' He can score and he's got a terrific shot; he scores big goals, timely goals.
"The thing that impressed me most about him … he's very methodical with the puck. He doesn't give the puck away. Coming out of his own zone he makes sure he protects it well off the boards. He doesn't just chip it out; he makes a play to get it into the middle, which for us as a team creates more speed up the middle of the ice. He doesn't give it away; he doesn't just chip it out and say, 'My job is over.' He gets it and makes a play and moves up behind the player he made the pass to."
Taylor said all Rattie, 20, has to do to earn an NHL job is showcase those skills every shift.
"The one thing he has to learn about the pro game is you can't take a shift off, because coaches have to be able to trust players to put them in situations," he said. "There are situations where the coaches have to trust young players to put them in situations to be successful. So he has to gain the trust of our staff in training camp that he'll be able to do those in-game situations that you rely on to win hockey games."
3. Joel Edmundson, D: It was a tale of two seasons for the big defenseman, whom the Blues selected with the third of three 2011 second-round picks (No. 46). After totaling eight points and a minus-11 rating in 29 games with the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL, he was rejuvenated after a trade to the Kamloops Blazers, and had 17 points and a plus-9 rating in 34 games. The 20-year-old had eight points in 15 playoff games.
"When he got traded this year his game skyrocketed and we have not heard enough good things about him," Taylor said. "Every person we talked to said how well he's playing. He really took off."
One thing that didn't change no matter where the 6-4, 207-pound defenseman played was the physicality he brought to the game. He totaled 141 penalty minutes in 68 games last season, and has 327 in three WHL seasons.
"He's a mean player to play against and a big guy," Taylor said. "We see him as a third/fourth guy in the NHL who can play a lot of minutes and be a physical force to play against."
4. Jani Hakanpaa, D: Taylor compared the big Finnish blueliner, whom the Blues picked in the fourth round (No. 110) of the 2010 NHL Draft, to Kevin Hatcher.
"He's got the ability to be offensive, he's a shutdown guy," Taylor said of Hakanpaa. "He's a big guy (6-5, 218), he's physical."
Hakanpaa had two goals and three assists in 34 games last season for the Espoo Blues in Finland's top professional league, and finished the season four points in 14 games with the Blues' American Hockey League team, the Peoria Rivermen. When that season ended, Hakanpaa joined the Blues as an extra player during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Taylor said Hakanpaa, 21, is committed to playing full-time in North America this season.
"When you bring European players over, they have to want to be here," Taylor said. "There can't be that crutch of, 'OK, if it doesn't work I'm going home,' because it never works out. You have to be 100-percent committed. … Hakanpaa is coming over to work out early and spend the rest of the summer. The only thing he wants to do is play in the NHL for the St. Louis Blues. That's a huge credit to him. That also gives him a chance to play in the NHL."
5. Jordan Binnington, G: Despite being a high NHL draft pick -- the Blues selected Binnington in the third round (No. 88) in 2011 -- he has spent a large amount of time overcoming obstacles placed in front of him.
He was the youngest of three goalies with the Owen Sound Attack of the Ontario Hockey League during the 2010-11 season, but emerged as the starter as the team went to the Memorial Cup. The following season he had to fight for playing time with over-ager Scott Stajcer, but again won that battle and played the majority of the games. Last season Binnington (6-1, 167) wasn't invited to Canada's summer junior evaluation camp but played well enough in the first half of the season that he earned a spot on Canada's World Junior Championship team and played two games.
The unquestioned starter in Owen Sound last season, Binnington, 20, was named the OHL's best goalie after finishing in the top four in wins (32), goals-against average (2.17), save percentage (.932) and shutouts (seven), playing 50 games.
"He's always been behind other guys wherever he's played [and] he's always come to the forefront," Taylor said. "He's a great, quality kid that understands the game and work ethic to be a pro. We're very excited about his development and where he's come since we've drafted him. Every year he's gotten better."
6. Jordan Schmaltz, D: After a solid freshman season at the University of North Dakota, the Blues are looking for Schmaltz, the 25th pick of the 2012 draft, to make bigger strides this season.
The 6-2, 190-pound defenseman had three goals and nine assists in 42 games, but was the youngest of six NHL-drafted defensemen and saw limited minutes. This season, though, the 19-year-old is expected to have a larger role, and numbers that should rise accordingly.
"This year we're looking for him to take that step and want to be the man back there and run the power play and be offensive and jump up and make more plays," Taylor said. "It's a big year for him … a big stepping stone in his growth as a player. We're looking for big things from him this year."
7. Petteri Lindbohm, D: Taylor didn't need to watch the 2012 sixth-round pick (No. 176) for very long to find an NHL comparable: Ulf Samuelsson.
"He moved the puck well, but he was physical, he was mean," Taylor said. "A 19-year-old kid playing against men, I really admired the way he played."
The 6-3, 198-pound defenseman had four assists in 35 games as a rookie with Jokerit in Finland's top professional league. He also had two assists and served as captain for Finland at the 2013 World Junior Championship.
Taylor said next for Lindbohm could be a move to North America.
"The way he's progressed, he's a guy that we're probably going to bring him over," Taylor said. "I love the way he plays. You don't get enough of those guys. With his attitude and his meanness on the ice, he's going to have a real long career. And guys are going to hate him. Guys are going to be all over him. But those are the guys you love to have."
8. Niklas Lundstrom, G: Lundstrom appears to be the latest in a rapidly growing pipeline of strong young Blues goalies.
The 2011 fifth-round pick (No. 132) was second in goals-against average (1.60) and third in save percentage (.944) in helping Sweden win the silver medal at the 2013 World Juniors. The 20-year-old had a 3.10 GAA in 15 games with AIK in the Swedish Hockey League.
"Lundstrom moves well," Taylor said. "He's a big guy (6-1, 194). From what I've seen watching film of him, he just plays a very, very relaxed game and makes the saves look easy."
9. Max Gardiner, C: After finding himself far off track, Gardiner, a 2010 third-round pick (No. 74), has re-emerged as a prospect for the Blues.
A Minnesota native, Gardiner left the University of Minnesota after 17 games in the 2010-11 season. After a middling 2011-12 with the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League, Taylor said the Blues had lost faith in Gardiner.
"Max started at Minnesota, things weren't working out, he quits the program, he spends a year in Dubuque, it's almost taking a step back," Taylor said. "He's in a holding pattern. He doesn't have a very good year in Dubuque. He knows he's going to school the following year, but he's taken a step back in his career."
But a strong season at Penn State in 2012-13 -- a team-best 18 assists in 23 games for the first-year NCAA program -- has moved the 21-year-old back to a prominent spot among the team's prospects.
"He's taken a step in the right direction," Taylor said. "His body has matured. He's a big kid (6-3, 204). The biggest thing we need to see improvement this year is his skating, his first two or three strides. His strength is going to come. … He was off our radar, but he played himself back on."
10. Colton Parayko, D: A 2012 third-round pick (No. 86), Parayko had 17 points in 33 games as a freshman at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.
What impressed Taylor most, however, was the way the defenseman arrived for prospect camp earlier in the summer.
"He's a kid that looks like Ivan Drago," Taylor said. "He's [6-5] and gained 14 pounds (to 214) from last year to this year and went down from 8.5 to 7.5 percent body fat."
With that kind of off-ice work ethic, Taylor believes the on-ice improvements that are needed will come from the 20-year-old.
"He needs to work on his ability to shoot the puck and really be aggressive in his skating," Taylor said. "He's a tad off in his skating; his legs need to get stronger. Once they do, we look for good things out of him."
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