"Tomorrow's Blues" with Brian Weidler, "Game Time" Prospect Department
As promised in last night's paper, over the next several issues of the print version of "St. Louis Game Time," and in an ongoing interactive discussion at this website (commencing now), "Tomorrow's Blues" will take a close-up look at the current state of the Blues' developmental system.
In this series of articles and discussions, we'll look at how players have developed in various positions and roles; who's moving up, who's treading water, and who's moving down. We'll also try to identify trends in recent drafts, and look for some players eligible for the 2008 draft that fit with those trends.
We'll start our look at the organ-I-zation by examining the last line of defense: goaltending. At this particular position, the Blues are in good shape up and down the organization for the short-term future. Thirty-four-year-old Manny Legace is at the top of his game, and if he can stay healthy, should be able to sustain this level for another year or two. That will allow time for 23-year-old Hannu Toivonen, and 21-year-old Marek Schwarz, to develop into starters; Toivonen in particular should start taking over more and more starts from Legace over the next 12 months or so.
Schwarz has the starting job in Peoria locked down, and after shuffling Juuso Riksman and Jason Bacashihua out of the organization, AHL-contracted Chris Beckford-Tseu should be the backup in Peoria for the foreseeable future, and a good insurance policy for the organization at the AHL level.
Below the minor pro level: Twenty-year-old Reto Berra is alternating starts with fellow youngster Leonardo Genoni for high-profile HC Davos of the Swiss Nationalliga-A, and 21-year-old Ben Bishop, a St. Louis product, is in the middle of his third season as the number one man in goal for one of the nation's top collegiate hockey powers at the University of Maine.
2003 draftee Konstantin Barulin (Mytischi Khimik, RSL) remains in the mix, and the Blues will retain his rights as long as no transfer agreement exists between the NHL and the Russian Ice Hockey Federation. Barulin probably has the talent, and experience, to come over right away and excel at the AHL level, or even serve as a competent NHL backup. New rules in the RIHF, however, make it far more attractive, financially and in terms of playing time, for Barulin and other Russian-born goalies of his generation to remain in the homeland.
The long and short of it is, don't count on seeing Barulin in a Bluenote. Ever. He is, however, a potentially attractive trade chip for a team that has an NHL goaltending spot opening up, and a history of being able to successfully integrate Europeans (specifically Russians) into their lineup. A couple of Eastern Conference clubs spring to mind fairly quickly, as does a division rival.
The chances of either Berra or Bishop playing professionally in North America next season are about 50/50; Berra has been impressive in two consecutive years of Development Camp, and Bishop is in his junior year at Maine this season. There is a chance that Bishop could sign after his season is complete and finish the year in Peoria, but this will not happen unless Blues' management feels he has developed as much as he can in college. Berra, if he signs, won't do so until the off-season.
The most likely scenario for 2008-09 has Legace and Toivonen in St. Louis, with Legace getting between 45 and 50 games and Toivonen about 32 to 37, and Schwarz playing 50-60 games in Peoria with either Beckford-Tseu backing him up, or one of Bishop / Berra. If either of the prospects signs an NHL contract, he will likely get the nod over Beckford-Tseu as the backup in Peoria because of that contract, and "The Hyphenator" will return to the ECHL, where he is an elite starter.
Since Berra is already playing professionally, albeit in Europe, it would seem that the most likely secenario would have him signing with the Blues for next year. This would allow the Blues to have the option of letting Bishop spend one more season in college to round into a dominant goaltender (he's well on the way to that stage already), and sets the stage for a Schwarz / Toivonen tandem in St. Louis for 2009-10, with Bishop and Berra carrying the load in Peoria on their broad shoulders.
In the unlikely event that both Berra and Bishop sign for the 2008-09 season, expect a healthy competition for the two Peoria spots, and the possibility that the Blues would explore a trade scenario involving Schwarz if the Czech prospect does not establish himself as clearly superior over Berra and Bishop right from the get-go in camp.
Trends: Two of the three goaltenders taken with a high (Top 100) pick by the Blues in the Jarmo Kekalainen era have been Europeans (Schwarz 17th, Barulin 84th, Bishop 85th); Berra (106th), chosen at the top of the fourth round in 2006, essentially makes three of four goaltenders from Europe chosen with Top 100 picks.
Four of the five goaltenders drafted by the Blues in the Kekalainen era are over six feet tall, and the fifth (Schwarz) is six feet even. Both of those trends -- height and European origin -- can be expected to continue if the Blues draft a goaltender in 2008.
The two top goaltending prospects outside of the North American pro game are ready, or nearly so, to step up to the next level, and the Blues will very likely wish to add another prospect at the front end of the development system. Thus, the likelihood of the Blues drafting a goaltender is high, especially if they sign either Berra or Bishop. If both sign, look for the Blues to draft a highly-ranked goaltender in the first three rounds; if only one signs, look for the Blues to take a flyer on a less highly-regarded goalie (and possibly one that falls outside the parameters of the draft trends shown above) somewhere between rounds four and seven.
Potential Draftees: Based on the trends that have emerged from the last few drafts, the player that seems most likely to catch the Blues' eye is 6'3 Jakob Markstrom of Brynas Gavle junior (Sweden). Markstrom has played 12 of Brynas' 21 games thus far, with an 11-1-0 record, 1.83 GAA and 93.4% save percentage, and is the second-rated Swedish goaltending prospect according to NHL Central Scouting's preliminary rankings.
Markstrom is ranked the 22nd best draft-eligible prospect for the 2008 draft by the McKeens hockey website, and was named the Top Goaltender at the annual U18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament held in late August.
In that tournament, won by the Swedish side, "McKeens" scout David Burstyn noted that Markstrom is a "tall, butterfly goalie who frequently demonstrated his superb lateral movement, sliding across the crease to rob shooters on countless occasions." The scout further praised Markstrom's "Ability to perform under pressure and to elevate his game at key moments," and noted that this "factored heavily in Sweden's triumph" at the tournament.
There is, of course, a strong possibility that the Swedes' recent decision to withdraw from the NHL-IIHF transfer agreement would preclude NHL clubs from being active in selecting from the Swedish draft pool. If such is the case, the Blues could stay in Europe for another highly-regarded goaltender, from a nation where they have found a top goalie prospect before.
There are two excellent draft-eligible prospects competing in the Czech junior league this season, Slavia Praha's Domink Furch (6'1, 176, 20 GP, 12-8-0, 2.60 GAA, 92.0% save percentage) and Zlin product Jakub Sedlacek (5'10, 163, 20 GP, 15-5-0, 2.18, 92.0% save percentage). Furch, the top-ranked Czech goaltending prospect by CSS, has size that corresponds to the Blues' recent draft trend, while Sedlacek (ranked number two in the Czech Republic by CSS) has slightly better numbers.
The last update at the "McKeens" site on Furch is over a year-and-a-half old (May 23, 2006), and notes that Furch is a smaller goaltender with excellent quickness and lateral movement. Like many Czech goaltenders, the success of his unorthodox style depends on quickness and athleticism, and his reflexes are above average. On the negative side, "McKeens" noted that Furch could learn to stay up a split-second longer in order to avoid being beaten up high, and that his stickhandling and rebound control could also use some work.
"McKeens" review of Sedlacek is also from 2006, and is almost a mirror image of their review of Furch, with virtually the same strengths and weaknesses noted. Sedlacek is apparently not as developed in his mobility and positioning as Furch, at least not at the time of the respective observations, but is noted as being very communicative with his defense and as having decent stickhandling and puck-moving skills.
On this side of the pond, there are a couple of possibilities plying their trade in major junior. In the Ontario League, the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors rely on 6'2, 185-pound Chris Carrozzi (17 GP, 9-5-1, 2.60 GAA, 91.3% save percentage), a player that "McKeens" notes has decent lateral movement and sees the puck well in traffic, but tends to play deep in his crease and rely on his size to fill up the net.
In the Quebec League, Swiss import Robert Mayer (6'1, 190, 13 GP, 7-3-0, 3.67 GAA, 87.7% save percentage) is splitting the goaltending chores in Saint John with 20-year-old Travis Fullerton, and has both of the Sea Dogs' shutouts this year. "McKeens" praises Mayer's athleticism, lateral movement and game-reading skills, noting that "it appears that he was born wearing his goal pads." Like most goaltenders who rely heavily on their athleticism, however, Mayer is guilty of occasionally relying too much on that aspect of his game, and could use some work on his mechanics.
A quick and dirty ranking of these goaltending prospects, in order of projected interest on the part of the Blues, is as follows:
Over the next few days, we'll discuss this issue here, and take a preliminary look at the state of the organization's defense prospects in advance of the next print edition of "Tomorrow's Blues." Comments from "Game Time" readers on these ratings, or on any other aspect of the present and potential goaltending scene in the Blues' organization, are welcome and encouraged.
As always, remember... "if we do not prepare for ourselves the role of the hammer, there will be nothing left but that of the anvil. Auf wiedersehen.