In the last edition of "The '14 File," we began examining some trends and outliers in the Blues' drafting patterns over the last eight Entry Drafts, from the 2006 draft through the 2013 draft. Today, we'll start to dig a little deeper into those trends and outliers, as well as the effect that past drafts have had on the organization already.
Based on the draft trends we examined in previously in this space, the Blues' first-round pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft is most likely to come from either Europe (four of 10 first-round picks in the last eight years, including one of the last three) or the USHL (two of the last three first-round picks).
As previously noted, the Blues have made only three selections in the first round during Doug Armstrong's tenure as general manager. Two of those selections were made in 2010, Armstrong's first year at the head of the Blues’ draft table, when the Blues drafted Jaden Schwartz 14th overall, and then traded 2009 first-round selection David Rundblad to Ottawa in exchange for the 16th overall pick, which they used to select Vladimir Tarasenko.
Armstrong's only other first-round selection was made in 2012, when the Blues drafted defenseman Jordan Schmaltz from Green Bay of the USHL. The Blues had no first-round pick in 2011, when their pick at 11th overall went to Colorado as part of the deal which brought Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart to St. Louis, or in 2013, when their pick at 22nd overall went to Calgary as part of the Jay Bouwmeester deal.
Three first-round picks in four years is a pretty small sample size from which to draw any conclusions, but it is significant that two of those three picks were used on players from the United States Hockey League. The USHL is the only Tier One league in the United States, roughly equivalent to the Junior “A” leagues in Canada such as the British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario Junior Leagues.
(NOTE: The Ontario Junior Hockey League, or OJHL, is not to be confused with the Ontario Hockey League, one of the three major junior leagues operating under the Canadian Hockey League umbrella.)
The USHL has teams all over the upper Midwest, from Youngstown, Ohio to Fargo, North Dakota and Kearney, Nebraska. The players are high-school age players, ranging in age from 16 to 20, and the league has carved out a niche for itself as a transitional stage from high school hockey (which has huge differences in quality of competition from state to state, and even within states) to NCAA Division I. Essentially, the league is made up of players who are preparing to take the next step in their development and skate for the top Division I schools like Michigan, Minnesota, Denver University, Boston College, North Dakota, Vermont or Notre Dame.
NHL clubs retain the rights to players drafted from major junior or Europe for two years after they are drafted; when a drafted player goes the NCAA route, however, the NHL club that holds his rights retains them for four years (to allow the player time to complete a standard collegiate educational curriculum). This rule allows NHL clubs to defer signing college prospects to pro contracts for an additional two years after they must sign junior or European players drafted the same year, allowing NHL clubs to develop prospects for up to two years at no cost to the team.
Here's an example of how this works in real time for the Blues. In 2012, the Blues drafted eight players total. The first four players they selected -- Schmaltz, Sam Kurker, Mackenzie Maceachern and Colton Parayko -- are all in college (at North Dakota, Boston University, Michigan State and Alaska-Fairbanks, respectively), and the Blues hold their rights until July 1, 2016, or four years after the draft in which these players were chosen.
The last four players drafted by the Blues that year -- Nicholas Walters, Francois Tremblay, Petteri Lindbohm and Tyrel Seaman -- were all drafted from major junior clubs (or, in Lindbohm's case, from a European club), and the Blues have only until July 1, 2014 to get these players under contract or lose their rights. Seaman has retired from hockey after suffering multiple serious concussions over the last several years, but the Blues have less than eight months left to assess the potential of the other three players and offer contracts to them before their rights expire.
So by making four college-bound players their first four picks in 2012, the Blues have bought themselves two extra years to make a decision on those players, and those four players will be developing for those two years without the Blues having to pay them a salary. That’s a good thing for an organization that has slashed expenditures on player development by selling off the AHL franchise that they owned.
The Blues made Minnesota high schooler Tommy Vannelli their first pick in 2013 at 47th overall, and did so with the idea that he would be skating for the University of Minnesota for the next four years, bulking up his 6' 2, 165-pound frame while the Blues took their time evaluating him. Vannelli threw a bit of a monkey wrench into those plans by bailing on the Golden Gophers and casting his lot with the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL, which means that he now will have to sign by July 1 of 2015 or the Blues will lose his rights, as opposed to the July 1, 2017 deadline he and the Blues would have had if Vannelli had remained at the "U."
One may presume, however, that if the Blues did not give Vannelli their express permission to make this jump, they certainly did not attempt to dissuade him from doing so, either... at least, they did not do so in a public way. From this, one could logically assume that the Blues have confidence that Vannelli will be ready for a jump to the pro ranks in less than two years, and that they will have made room for him with their AHL affiliate in Chicago by making decisions on prospects like Cade Fairchild, Brett Ponich and David Shields in the intervening months.
The takeaway from all of this is, by drafting players from high school or the USHL (including the US National Team Development Program U-18 squad), the Blues give themselves options and a longer timeframe in which to evaluate and exercise those options.
In the case of European players, the Blues also have options, although they are not without financial impact on the organization in the same way that the collegiate options are. With Russians, such as Tarasenko, NHL organizations hold the players’ NHL rights indefinitely because there is currently no transfer agreement in place between the NHL and the Russian Ice Hockey Federation. This is why the Blues still technically own the NHL rights to players like Konstantin Barulin and Viktor Alexandrov, players drafted over a decade ago and who are not likely to ever wear the 'Note. It is also why the Blues were able to allow Tarasenko to go back to Russia during the lockout last season, rather than be forced to either assign him to Peoria (where Tarasenko, apparently, was not eager to be) or lose his rights entirely.
With Swedes, Finns and Czechs, however, it's a different story because there are transfer agreements in place between the NHL and the governing bodies for ice hockey in those countries. With players in those countries, the NHL club loses the rights to those players if they are not signed within two years after being drafted; this is why the NHL rights to 2011 draftee Teemu Eronen are no longer owned by the Blues.
What NHL clubs can do with these players, and what the Blues have done three times in the recent past, is sign them to entry-level contracts (ELC's) and then loan them back to European clubs so that they may finish out contracts that they have signed with the European club. The Blues did that with 2008 draftee Jori Lehtera, who later rejected an offer from the Blues to come to camp this season and take a shot at a top six forward position, and did so again with 2010 draftee Jani Hakanpää last season. The Blues signed Hakanpää to his ELC in the summer of 2012, then loaned him back to Blues Espoo in Finland so that he could finish out a contract he had signed with that club.
The Blues were not paying Hakanpää while he was in Europe, but they did "burn" the first year of his three-year ELC by allowing him to play there while under contract. So now Hakanpää is playing full-time here in North America, but he has just two years under the watchful eye of the Blues' player development staff to earn his next second contract. The Blues are doing the same thing this year with Swedish goaltender Niklas Lundström, who signed his ELC with the Blues this past summer, and was then loaned back to AIK Solna for this coming season.
AIK in turn loaned Lundström out to Södertälje SK of the Swedish second league (Allsvenskan), possibly at the Blues' urging so that the promising young netminder would get the maximum amount of playing time in a critical developmental year. With Jake Allen and Jordan Binnington needing to find homes in the Blues’ developmental organization this year, and only one roster spot available for a goalie in Chicago of the AHL (the Wolves had already signed journeyman Matt Climie), there was no room at the inn on this side of the Atlantic for Lundström this season, and he would not have gotten a great deal of playing time in either Chicago or Kalamazoo.
The Blues' goaltending logjam is expected to clear up somewhat next season, however. Allen is establishing himself as a premier goalie at the AHL level, and should find a home with the Blues next season. Climie, meanwhile, is not playing well in Chicago, and has been clearly deposed as the Wolves' top goalie by Allen, so he may well not return next season. If Allen moves up and Climie moves on, as expected, that leaves two goaltending roster spots open in Chicago, with Binnington and Lundström ready to fill them after getting premium development time with their respective clubs this season. Francois Tremblay, if he is offered a contract before his rights expire, will likely find a home in Kalamazoo.