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Johnson, Berglund lead the cavalry to St. Louis

by Brad Holland
Erik Johnson has been one of the most impressive youngsters at the Traverse City prospect tournament.
In 1989, the Detroit Red Wings pulled off one of the most successful Entry Drafts in NHL history. Holding 14 picks, the Wings somehow managed to select Mike Sillinger, Bob Boughner, Nick Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Dallas Drake and Vladimir Konstantinov.

Not bad for a day’s work.

That kind of draft performance may never be matched. But through a savvy management of assets, the St. Louis Blues have complied quite a nest of prospects, including five first-round picks in the last two years.

Two of those prospects -- 2006’s top pick, Erik Johnson (500K ) and ‘06’s 25th-overall selection, Patrik Berglund (500K ) – have impressed at the Red Wings sponsored prospects tournament here.

“Both been very good and there’s no question that they’re a big part of the Blues future,” Blues President John Davidson said. “I think with Berglund, he’s gotten stronger. He’s a big tall lanky kid that’s strong, only he’s going to put another 20 pounds of strong on. I think his upside is immense. He has a chance to be a great player at the NHL level.

“With Erik, he’s got it,” Davidson said. “He is what he is. He’s a big man who’s got a great shot, a tremendous skater. The first two strides he’s at full speed. He’s a good kid on top of it. So we’re very impressed with those two, among others.”

Others? There’s more?

“We have five or six kids who aren’t here,” Davidson said, “like David Perron, Lars Eller (and Ian Cole) who are first rounders from this year and T.J. Oshie, whom we feel could play probably for the Blues this season. So there’re four or five or six kids we feel if they were here, we’d be a pretty strong club.”

Strong indeed. With the three 2007 first rounders joining an impressive stable of rookies and prospects already in the system, you can begin to understand why Davidson can’t help but be optimistic when he thinks about the Blues’ future.

Optimistic, yes, but also realistic. “Future” is the key word for the Blues. Even with the impressive talent selected by the Red Wings in the 1989 Draft, the Red Wings still weren’t able to win the Stanley Cup until 1997.

Turning a prospect in an NHL player is no easy task. Even for the top player selected in the 2006 Entry Draft, a blue-chip defenseman like Johnson. He wasn’t able to make the step into the NHL immediately, needing a year of seasoning before he was ready for the pros.

With Johnson, however, you’re talking about one of the premier young players in the world today. And his stock has been on the rise in this tournament, where he looks like a man against boys. Davidson believes he just might accelerate the learning process and join the Blues as early as this season.

“I think there’s a strong chance he’ll make the Blues,” Davidson said. “He’s going to go through a learning experience, like a lot of people do.

“I guess in St. Louis you can liken him to Chris Pronger,” Davidson said. “Pronger was traded to the Blues at a young age and went through growing pains and I think Erik will do that too.”

Johnson knows his NHL future will take a lot of hard work and dedication on his part. His play in Traverse City is just another step along that road, a road that began when he decided to leave his the University of Minnesota and turn pro after his freshman season.

He now has his second experience going against professional hockey players under his belt. His first came at the 2007 World Championship in Moscow, a tournament he said was both exciting and eye-opening.

John Davidson should be very pleased with the talent he's assembled through the last two NHL Entry Drafts.
“It was a good experience,” Johnson said. “Myself and Jack Johnson, we weren’t there to get a lot of ice time, but just there to learn a little. It was tough getting used to it, but I thought I played well. The biggest thing I’ve learned is even when you play some of the ‘less talented’ countries, they’re just as strong and as tough to knock over as some of the better teams. When you play in the World Junior, that wasn’t the case. In Russia, everyone was strong and skilled and it was a good jump and a good experience.”

Johnson brought his experience from that tournament with him to Traverse City. He has been dominant in the games -- tied for eighth in tournament scoring with five points in three games -- and has carried the Blues to a 3-1 record. The Blues’ only blemish was a 7-3 loss to the Minnesota Wild prospects.

Johnson credits the play of his teammates, specifically Berglund, for both his success and the success of the team.

“Our team came in and I wasn’t sure how we were going to do, but I knew we have a lot of good prospects here,” Johnson said. “It’s good to see how you match up against guys who have played against and other guys who will play in the NHL.”

Berglund is definitely one of those “good prospects” Johnson speaks of. In fact, “good” might be an understatement. Berglund led the tournament in scoring with four goals and six assists in only four games. His teammates have definitely taken notice of his play.

“On our team, Patrik Berglund, I didn’t know just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been exceptional in this tournament; he uses his size and protects the puck so well. Also, my (defense) partner, Steve Wagner, has been good. I don’t think many people know about him, but I think people will in a few years because he’s a very good player.”

Johnson knows he is joining a young crop of players who will be a force to reckon with in the coming seasons.

“To tell you the truth, I’m thrilled,” he said of the cast of young players the Blues have put together. “Just looking at the guys already on the team; David Backes, Lee Stempniak and Jay McClement, these are guys already proving themselves. Then you look at the draft and this they had three first-rounders and I think two last year, so there’s a lot of guys that in a couple years that will be here will be ready to step in and play a prominent role.

”It’s exciting to see the future of the Blues, with their scouting and free agents there’s a lot of really good talent coming up and I’m excited to be a part of it.”

Johnson may be the first of the selections from 2006 and 2007 to enter the NHL, but he won’t be the last. Just consider him the first shot fired over the bow of the NHL by the St. Louis Blues, the first of the cavalry to come round the bend.

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