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The State of Blues Goaltending, Part II

By Brian Weidler

[This article originally appeared in the Mar.27 issues of St. Louis Game Time.]

In the last edition of Tomorrow's Blues we noted how important goaltending is to success in hockey, and also took note of the fact that the Blues' organization “gets it”, as shown by the impressive stable of goaltending prospects they've built up over the last several years. We also took a closer look at the Blues' three minor pro goaltending prospects -- Jason Bacashihua, Chris Beckford-Tseu, and Marek Schwarz. Â

In this report, we'll do the same for the Blues' three goaltending prospects who have yet to play at the North American minor-pro level. As has been noted previously, the Blues' goaltending prospect stable is essentially brought to you by the letter “B”.Â

In addition to the previously-mentioned Bacashihua, the three goalies we'll look at tonight are all “B”-sides: Ben Bishop of the University of Maine, Konstantin Barulin of Mytischi Khimik in the Russian Superleague, and Reto Berra of ZSC Lions in Switzerland.

Turning first to “Big Ben” Bishop, the Chaminade HS and North American Hockey League product has been a workhorse for Maine over the last two seasons. You might expect a kid that stands 6'7 and weighs well over 200 pounds to be able to carry a huge load, and Bishop has done just that for the Black Bears in his career there.Â

Big Ben at Chaminerd

Ben Bishop

As of last weekend, Maine has played 33 games this season, and Bishop has appeared in 31 of them. The Black Bears own a 21-10-2 record to date, and Bishop has 19 of those 21 wins to go along with eight losses and both ties.

In just over 1,728 minutes played, Bishop has a 2.15 goals-against average, and has made 722 saves on 784 shots against for a very nice 92.1% save percentage. He also has three of the Black Bears' four team shutouts this year, blanking Providence twice (on December 1 and January 20), and Merrimack just last weekend, in Hockey East play. Â

Over the last two years, Maine has a 49-22-4 record in 75 games, and Bishop has appeared in 62 of those with an overall record of 40-16-4, a 2.22 goals-against average and 91.4% save percentage.  During a chat with Game Time at a recent Peoria Rivermen game, Blues' goaltending coach Rick Wamsley noted that Bishop was very well-regarded by the Blues' organization.    Â

“I like the total package with Bishop,” Wamsley noted. “He's got great size, obviously, and good skills for his size. I like that he's such a young guy playing so well in the NCAA. He's shown good leadership and maturity for his age.”Â

At the US College Hockey Online website, Maine head coach Tim Whitehead echoes Wamsley's sentiments, and notes that Bishop is ready to take a step up in his progress towards the NHL.  “Ben had a tremendous freshman year,” Whitehead noted atÂ

“He did a fabulous job helping us get to the Frozen Four again.  This year, it's going to be exciting seeing Ben take his next step, elevating to become an elite player at the collegiate level. That's a challenge I know he's looking forward to.”Â

From the New England seacoast, head east across the Atlantic about 5,000 miles to the Moscow suburb of Mytischi, where 2003 draft pick (84th overall) Konstantin Barulin continues his development into one of the top young Russian goaltenders. Â

Konstantin - ly stopping pucks, y'all!

Konstantin Barulin

Barulin has played very well in Russia this year; his GAA and save percentage are ridiculously good at 1.45 and 94.46% respectively. In 2005-06, Barulin was equally impressive, appearing in 36 games for Spartak Moscow and posting a 2.14 GAA and 91.47% save percentage.Â

Over the last two years, both at the highest level in Russia, the Superleague, Barulin's numbers are 53 games played, 2,931:35 minutes, 95 goals against on 1,240 shots against, a 1.94 goals-against average and 92.34% save percentage. Oh, and he has three shutouts in those 53 games, too.Â

Those are impressive numbers, indeed. And at 6'2, 180, Barulin is physically impressive as well. So what's the downside? The downside is that Barulin hasn't played an awful lot this season, appearing in only 17 games or so with Khimik. Also, while he is clearly ready at age 22 (will be 23 in camp) to come over and play in the AHL, the issue is, will he agree to play in the AHL?Â

There have been rumors flying around for the last couple of years that Barulin, who has been in training camp and represented the Blues at the Traverse City prospect tournament in previous years, will not be coming to North America again without a guarantee of an NHL roster spot.Â

Some would say that Barulin's impressive stats in what is, arguably, the second-best pro league in the world have earned him that position ahead of the older and perhaps less-accomplished goaltenders that have been in the Blues' backup position over the last couple of years. The NHL, however, is very much a “what have you done for me lately” environment, and with no record of accomplishment in the NHL, or anywhere in North America, Barulin still has much to prove in the Blues' eyes.Â

Finally, the Blues' organization contains one more European goaltending prospect with excellent size. Reto Berra, the Blues' sixth selection (106th overall) in 2006, offers cat-like quickness and an unflappable demeanor to go along with his 6'4, 189-pound frame.Â

Not Retro, Reto

Reto Berra

From late September through mid-December, the Bulach, Switzerland native was pretty much splitting time between playing for the GCK Lions B team, and warming the bench for the ZSC Lions A team, both based out of Zurich. For a nation known for their clocks and meticulous attention to detail, Swiss hockey statistic websites are horrendously incomplete.Â

Berra's chart at the site shows October 28, 2006 as the last game for which statistics are available, yet in the “ganze spiel”, or “complete games” column, each game is marked as a complete game played.

Based on statistical information available at the site, Berra has a 4-5-0 record with the CGK Lions B squad, and a 3.46 goals-against average (31 goals against in 538 minutes played). The site seems to indicate that he's played in quite a few more games than that, as does the site and, but apparently the only games for which stats are available are the nine shown.

Berra also was the starter for Switzerland at the recent World Juniors, and gave the overmatched Swiss a chance to win in almost every match. He played every minute of all six tournament games for the Swiss, posting a 3-3-0 record, a 3.17 goals-against average on 19 goals against in six games, and an 89.89% save percentage (169 saves on 188 shots against).  Â

“I saw Reto Berra at prospects camp, and in (the prospects tournament) in Traverse City,” Wamsley said. “He looked fine there. His patience is very good for such a young kid; he's got good size and good skill for his size. I liked what I saw when he was here in North America.”

Berra turned 20 on January 3, so he's also age-eligible to play in the AHL next season. He's been getting the Schwarz treatment in Switzerland, riding the pine behind an aging veteran, so he may well be motivated to come over if by doing so he will get to play, and play often. The key for the Blues will be finding a place for him. Beckford-Tseu has been a good soldier and accepted demotions to Alaska because there was no room for him in Peoria; it remains to be seen if Berra will be willing to do so as well, but if he will, he can very well be the everyday goaltender there, as early as the 2007-08 season.

When looking at the Blues' non-AHL goaltending prospects, the one thing that jumps right out at the casual observer is their excellent size. Barulin, the oldest of these prospects, is also the smallest, and he's well over six feet and 180 pounds. All three of the B-level prospects, if you will, are very evocative of the chief criterion that Wamsley uses when evaluating goalies.

“Overall, I like the guys that use what they have,” Wamsley says. “If you have two guys equal in ability, you might tend to take the bigger goalie (over the smaller one) because when things get desperate, they've just got more inches to work with.Â

“But generally, I like the guys who can stop the puck, and win.”

Each of the goalies currently in the Blues' prospect stable can do just that, and do it with regularity. After a decade of uncertainty and struggle at the goaltending position, the Blues look to be on the right track as far as developing from within the goaltenders that will carry the torch for this franchise for the next decade and more.

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.Â