By Brian Weidler
Tonight, the St. Louis Blues and their fans pay tribute to a true legend and a sure-fire Hall of Famer, raising the #2 of Al Macinnis to the Savvis Center rafters. Few players are more deserving of such an honor than "Chopper," even though much of his career was spent, and many of his greatest achievements made, in a Calgary Flames uniform. As we honor the passing of the old guard, however, the question arises: Is there a "new" Al Macinnis among the Blues' current crop of defense prospects? In this edition of "Tomorrow's Blues," we'll try to answer that question.
Trevor Byrne, 6'3", 210, 07 May 80, Peoria (AHL): Byrne has size, strength, durability and leadership ability in his favor. His offensive upside at the NHL level, however, is limited. Byrne has been in the system longer than any other current d-prospect (drafted in 1999), but it says something that he couldn't get so much as a cup of coffee with the Blues this year, even with all the injuries on the blueline. Byrne's time may well have come and gone.
Zack FitzGerald, 6'2", 210, 16 Jun 85, Peoria (AHL): When drafted, FitzGerald was touted as a young Scott Stevens. He certainly has the size and mindset to play the physical game like Stevens did, and he has shown leadership potential in junior and in this, his first pro season, but his offensive upside has yet to develop at the pro level. Comparisons to Al Macinnis are probably not in FitzGerald's future, but he certainly shows signs of becoming a solid NHL defenseman.
Mike Gauthier, 6'4", 185, 26 Mar 87, Prince Albert (WHL): Gauthier set personal highs in games played, goals, assists, points, and penalty minutes this season, but does not project to be an offensive threat at the pro level by any stretch of the imagination. Gauthier's forte is physical, stay-at-home defense, and if he can stay off the injured list, he can develop into a solid NHL third-pairing defenseman.
Scott Jackson, 6'4", 203, 05 Feb 87, Seattle (WHL): Jackson is a big kid with a very projectable frame, and his respectable assist totals indicate that he has a good, accurate point shot that teammates can redirect for goals on a regular basis. Jackson was the last Blues' prospect standing in the major junior playoffs, but his season was ended by Portland last Thursday night. He won't be a Macinnis-type scoring threat, but should eventually become a second-pairing defenseman for the Blues for a long time.
Robin Jonsson, 6'2", 184, 10 Dec 83, FÃ¤rjestads (Swe): Jonsson is something of a wild card in the Macinnis replacement sweepstakes. He has decent size and some offensive skill, and his complete return from cancer three seasons ago leaves no question about his heart and character. The question in Jonsson's case is, does he have the "want-to" to come to North America and pay his dues in the AHL for a season? If the answer is yes, Jonsson could be a player to watch.
Doug Lynch, 6'3", 214, 04 Apr 83, Alaska (ECHL): As a rookie in Edmonton's system two years ago, Lynch had a very respectable season in both ends of the rink, and made the AHL's All-Rookie Team. He has regressed somewhat this season, and his point totals have decreased each year since his 11-25-36 rookie totals in 2003-04. Still, he is young enough at 23 to still have time to make an impact, and he has size and leadership ability in his favor.
Tomas Mojzis, 6'1", 192, 02 May 82, Peoria (AHL): The Czech native was an offensive threat in junior (42 goals, 142 points, plus-70, 350 PIM in 198 career WHL games), and his working his way towards similar numbers in the AHL. He will reach age 24 in a few weeks, so time is not his friend right now, but the Blues thought highly enough of him to request him specifically in the Eric Weinrich trade with Vancouver last month.
Nikita Nikitin, 6'3", 176, 16 Jun 86, Avangard Omsk (Rus): Blues' chief scout Jarmo Kekalainen, and European scout Ville Siren, gushed about this kid when the Blues drafted him in the fifth round in 2004, praising his talent level as worthy of a much higher pick. He has become a regular in the Russian Superleague at age 19, which says something about his talent, but getting players out of Russia these days is like trying to carry water in a fishnet, and getting up-to-date information about their progress is even harder.
Andrei Pervyshin, 5'9", 165, 07 Jun 85, Ak Bars Kazan (Rus): Pervyshin has all the skill and hockey sense necessary to make an impact in the NHL. At five-nine and 165 pounds, however, he has the proverbial snowball's chance in Hell of ever making it big at this level, especially on defense. It's not likely that he'll ever come over and try his luck in North America, and is probably better suited to the less-physical European game anyway.
Roman Polak, 6'1", 198, 28 Apr 86, Vitkovice (Cze): After being drafted 180th overall by the Blues in 2004, Polak came over and enjoyed a respectable North American debut in 2004-05. Appearing in 65 games for Kootenay (WHL), he managed 5-18-23 point totals, a plus-19, and 85 PIM. He was enticed to return to the Czech Republic by a promise of a spot with the Extraliga club in Vitkovice, and has played acceptably well there, but would be better served returning to North America and paying his dues in the AHL next year.
Simon Skoog, 6'2", 218, 17 Feb 83, IF MalmÃ¶ Redhawks (Swe): Skoog is a big kid who plays an effective physical game without taking an outrageous number of penalties. The downside, unfortunately, is that he's so offensively challenged that he'd probably miss if he tried to shoot a puck into the Mississippi River from the middle of the Chain of Rocks Bridge. There's no question he has the size to be an effective seventh defenseman in the NHL, but he's also not likely to ever come over.
Mike Stuart, 6'0", 194, 31 Aug 80, Peoria (AHL): Stuart got a cup of coffee with the Blues in 2003-04, but like Byrne, didn't get a call this year despite all the injuries on the Blues' defense. He has also spent some time at right wing this year, with Peoria and Alaska, but has not demonstrated any ability to put the puck in the net. He's a stay-at-home guy on defense, which is probably the best position for him, but his chances of making an impact in the NHL are slim to none at this point.
Patrick Wellar, 6'3", 210, 12 Apr 83, Alaska (ECHL): Wellar is another player who has size going for him, but not a lot else. The former 3rd round pick (77th overall) of the Capitals has spent most of this year with Alaska, and has decent numbers there, but he seems to be settling in as an ECHL-level player. He wasn't a big scorer or PIM guy in junior, and hasn't been able to establish himself as a full-time AHL player in this, his second pro season.
Dennis Wideman, 6'0", 200, 20 Mar 83, St. Louis (NHL): Wideman was signed as a free agent by the Blues the same day Wellar was, and Wideman was a much later pick (8th round, 241st overall) when originally drafted. He has, however, blossomed as a power-play specialist and offensive catalyst for the Blues as a rookie NHL'er. He still has a lot of work to do as a defensive player, but his offensive skills and surprising grit and toughness will buy him the opportunity to develop at the NHL level instead of in the minors.
Jeff Woywitka, 6'2", 209, 01 Sep 83, St. Louis (NHL): The former first round pick (27th overall in 2001) of Philadelphia, Woywitka has been involved in two very high-profile trades in his young career, and will always have the baggage with Blues' fans of being one of the guys that Chris Pronger was traded for. In this latest callup, which unfortunately coincides with the current losing streak, Woywitka has two points and is "only" a minus-5. He won't be 23 until training camp, and has the time and basic skill level to still make an impact at this level.
To sum up, there doesn't appear to be a defense prospect in the system at this time that combines in one package the skills, leadership, and defensive capabilities of the legendary Al Macinnis. There are several with the leadership ability, several more with the potential to develop the requisite skill level, and several others who play sterling defense... but no one puts it all together quite like the man from Inverness, Nova Scotia did.
Wideman appears to be closest of all the Blues prospects to reaching that level, as he has the shot (right-handed, even) and the offensive prowess, and has shown a willingness to stand up for his teammates and lead by example. Defensively, Wideman is still a work in progress, but if he can develop that aspect of his game and improve on this season's dismal minus-24 rating, Wideman can be something special. Whether or not he can be as special as Al Macinnis remains, of course, to be seen.