By Brian Weidler
Greetings and salutations, "Game Time" readers, and welcome back after one of the most eventful and discussion-worthy summers in recent memory where the 'Note is concerned.
The big off-season news, of course, is the purchase of the Blues by Dave Checketts, and the return of John Davidson to The Gateway To The West. Checketts' purchase of the club from the Laurie family, finalized just before the Entry Draft in late June, lifted a titanic albatross from around the necks of the Blues' staff, players, and fans. Davidson, one of the most widely-known and universally-respected hockey minds in the game, made an immediate impact in terms of the media attention given to the Blues in St. Louis, and in terms of the players brought in as free agents because of Davidson's presence and contacts around the league.
And then, there was the Entry Draft... the Blues had two picks in the first round of this year's draft, including the first overall pick, for the first time in franchise history. Assistant GM and Director of Amateur Scouting Jarmo Kekalainen would finally have his chance to select a genuine blue-chipper for the Blues, and all indications are that he delivered in spectacular fashion.
When your club finishes dead last in the entire league, and the developmental system has been -- fairly or not -- a foil for every wanna-be comedian on an Internet message board for the last decade or more, you can take it as a given that there are holes to be filled in almost every area. Kekalainen and his scouts -- Ville Siren, Mike Antonovich, Craig Chanel, Rick Meagher, and the part-timers -- beat the bushes on three continents to find players to plug into those holes, and found at least one player at every organizational "need" position in this draft.
Every player chosen by the Blues in 2006 was ranked in the top 100 in either Europe or North America by Central Scouting, save for two -- a player ranked 133rd in North America (and chosen 154th overall by the Blues), and a player not ranked on the CSS final listing, but 85th in Europe at mid-term.
In this issue, and the next, we'll take a more in-depth look at the players chosen by the Blues in the 2006 Entry Draft, and see were they fit into the organization both now and in the future. As always, the beginning is a pretty good place to start, so we'll jump right in with a look at...
Erik Johnson, defense, shoots right. 6'4, 222 pounds, born March 21, 1988 in Bloomington, Minnesota. Chosen first overall by the Blues in 2006.
What else is there to say about this kid that hasn't already been said a hundred times? Future "franchise" defenseman - check; exceptional skater for a big man - check; aggressive and physical - check; excellent passer, good hockey sense, focused and intense - check, check, and check.
The consensus number one pick in last summer's draft, Johnson made the decision early on that he would fulfill his commitment to his home state, and attend the University of Minnesota for at least one season. That's just another indication of the character of the big kid, his willingness to forego a lucrative contract at age 18 and instead keep his word to the coaches and staff who recruited him, as well as keeping a promise he made to himself. The Blues supported that decision, and Johnson will take the ice for the Gophers in a few weeks wearing number 4, as his more familiar number 6 is already claimed by sophomore R.J. Anderson, a 2004 draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Johnson's position, origins, and decision to go the college route make him unique in several aspects. He's the first player in the 44 years of the NHL Entry Draft to go to college after being drafted first overall, and the first Minnesotan to be selected first overall.
In 47 games for the US National U-20 Team last year, Johnson racked up 16 goals (9 PPG, 4 game-winners) and 49 points, with 88 minutes in penalties. In World Junior competition, Johnson was 1-3-4 with an even plus-minus and 18 PIM in seven games for the U-20 team in British Columbia at Christmastime, and 4-6-10 with a plus-6 ands 27 PIM in six games in April for the U-18 squad in Sweden.
Patrik Berglund, center, shoots left. 6'4, 187 pounds, born June 2, 1988 in VÃ¤sterÃ¥s, Sweden. Chosen 25th overall by the Blues in 2006.
Berglund was a player that the Blues traded up for, moving their 30th-overall and 77-th overall picks to New Jersey on draft day for the chance to select the lanky Swede in the 25th spot. Jarmo Kekalainen, in an interview with Larry Wigge posted on the Blues' web site, noted that Berglund was high on the Blues' unique 100-player priority list, and was the last of the players they had identified with first- or second-line scoring potential, who hadn't been drafted up to that point.
It's likely that Berglund caught the Blues' collective eye early on in the season. After zooming out of the gate to an 11-8-19 mark with a plus-7 and 26 PIM in is first 19 games with VÃ¤sterÃ¥s' U-20 club, Berglund moved up to the senior team in his home town, where he finished the season with three goals (two PPG) and four points in 21 games against players who, in some cases, were 10-15 years older than he. Berglund also went back to the junior club in February, and finished the year there with 17 goals (five PPG), 27 points, a plus-12 mark, and 36 PIM in 27 games at that level. Adding luster to his draft year, he managed four goals and five points in six games at the U-18 tournament in April.
NHL Central Scouting called Berglund a "creative, cool playmaker with a good understanding of the game," and McKeen's Hockey Prospects website (http://mckeenshockey.rivals.com/viewprospect.asp?Sport=4&pr_key=37532) noted that Berglund "has a two-way mindset and really knows how to take care of his own end as well."
The latest word on Berglund is that he expects to play at least two more years in Europe, so the Blues will have to hustle to get him signed and ready to come over after the 2007-08 season before they lose his rights.