STL connections bringing the Blues back to the OHL on Draft Day?
It's entirely possible.
As detailed previously in this space, the Blues have not gone to the Ontario Hockey League for a first-round pick since taking Alex Pietrangelo fourth overall in 2008. St. Louis has chosen just seven OHL players in the last eight drafts, and since the duo of Doug and Bill Armstrong have assumed control of the team's draft table, the only OHL player chosen by the Blues has been goalie Jordan Binnington at 88th overall in 2011.
The Blues may be looking to think outside the box this coming June, however, and that shift in thinking, if it does come about, would be in large part due to the phenomenal growth of amateur hockey in the St. Louis area over the last decade.
Blake Clarke: Wild Card
Previously in this space, we've mentioned Wildwood, MO native Blake Clarke, currently skating for the Saginaw Spirit and one of the top-rated prospects available in the 2014 Entry Draft. The 6’ 1, 190-pound Clarke made an auspicious debut in the OHL last year, appearing in all 68 games for the North Bay Battalion (then based in the Toronto suburb of Brampton) and posting a 19-32-51 scoring line with a minus-2, 42 PM, seven power play tallies and six game-winning goals.
That performance, along with a playing style described as "a hard north-south game in the power forward mold" with "a high skill and compete level mixed with a booming shot and a willingness to battle anywhere on the ice," led to Clarke's being almost a unanimous early-season pick for a top 10 draft position. That lofty ranking would have almost certainly put him out of reach for the Armstrongs in the first round, barring a trade, but the stars seem to be aligning in favor of Clarke slipping to the end of the first round, right in the Blues' wheelhouse.
Clarke has battled injury all season long, missing a month because of a shoulder injury suffered in the pre-season USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game. Perhaps due to the injury, he has played a more tentative and less confident game this year, and that reflects in his stat line (1-7-8, plus-1, 10 PM in 28 games). The dreaded "sophomore slump" may be bad timing for Clarke in that it may keep him from being a top 10 selection, but it plays right into the Blues’ hands by making it more likely that Clarke falls to the end of the first round, and gives the Blues an opportunity to hit a public relations home run by drafting a hometown player in the first round for the first time ever.
It’s possible that Clarke could fall out of the first round entirely, and we’ve recently profiled several players in this space -- Euros Adrian Kempe and Oskar Lindblom, and Americans Dylan Larkin and Nick Schmaltz -- who could be ahead of Clarke on the Blues’ list. With two second-round picks in 2014, including what should be a fairly high pick from Edmonton (acquired in the David Perron trade), there’s a good possibility that both of those picks could be used for St. Louis-born players. Besides Clarke, there is a second St. Louis native who projects to be a fairly high pick. And this player has an impeccable pedigree and bloodline.
Ryan MacInnis is the son of legendary defenseman Al MacInnis, and was born in St. Louis while his father was wrapping up his Hall of Fame career with the Blues. After spending some time with the AAA Blues midget squad, and with the USNTDP U-17 team in Ann Arbor, the younger MacInnis will look to make it to the NHL by way of Kitchener, Ontario, just as his father did.
Aside from the last name, and the red, white and blue sweater of the Kitchener Rangers, however, there are few similarities between the younger MacInnis and his famous sire. Where Al was a defenseman, Ryan is a center because, as he told USA Today in an interview earlier this season, "I like skating forward more than (skating) backwards." The 6’ 4, 185-pounder also prefers to play center because it allows him to avoid being compared at every turn to his father; as he told USA Today, "I thought it was big shoes to fill as a defenseman."
The younger MacInnis has been told to essentially "live in the weight room," and bulk up for the rigors of the pro game. He is, of course, always working on his shot with his father’s help and coaching, but has not yet developed the kind of speed and power that his father terrorized NHL goaltenders with for two decades with the Blues and Calgary Flames.
The scouting report on MacInnis is that he is more a playmaker and a finesse player than a power forward. He has good hands, excellent hockey sense and on-ice vision, and better than average skating skills. And as he adds size and strength, MacInnis is also developing a physical edge to his game.
Last season with the USNTDP U-17 team, MacInnis racked up 15 goals and 25 points (2 PPG, 1 SHG, 2 game winners) while serving just six minutes in penalty time over 52 games. This year, after stepping up to the OHL, MacInnis has an 11-15-26 scoring line in 41 games, to go along with a minus-11 (Kitchener has a minus-41 team goal differential) and 14 minutes in penalty time. MacInnis has six "money" goals so far this year, having scored the first goal of the game twice, tallied three times on the power play, and scored a game-winner on Nov. 17 in a 6-3 home victory for Kitchener over the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
The RIGHT Side of the river is producing players, too...
The growth of youth hockey in the St. Louis area means that the other side of the Mississippi River, the Metro East, is becoming a breeding ground for hockey players as well. From Belleville, home of Our Lady Of The Snows and the best BBQ pork steaks in the St. Louis area, comes power forward Connor Chatham. At 6' 3 and 225 pounds, Chatham has the size and the mindset to play the same kind of game as his favorite player, Blues captain David Backes.
Former NHL'er Mike Vellucci, now in his 13th season as coach and GM of the Whalers, concurs. "Connor plays a hard, physical game that translates well to the Ontario Hockey League," Vellucci said in an interview for the Whalers’ website. "We look forward to seeing him continue to develop on the ice and in school. We're excited to have Connor in Plymouth."
"Plymouth drafted me a couple of years ago (88th overall in the 2011 Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection) and has been good to me, telling me there was no pressure," Chatham said in the same interview. "The Whalers are one of the most respected organizations in junior hockey. Mike Vellucci has quite the reputation as a coach so it (the decision to commit) was almost a no-brainer. Plymouth has a great track record of winning and developing players. I'm looking forward to getting started."
Chatham played last season for the Omaha Lancers of the USHL, where he was fourth on the team in scoring with an 18-17-35 scoring line (minus-12, 71 PM, 6 PPG, 3 GWG). This season, Chatham missed a handful of games with an unspecified injury, but still has managed five goals (including a power play tally) and 13 points in 31 games for the Whalers. The PPG was also the game's first goal, and the Whalers' only goal in a 2-1 loss in the home opener vs. the Erie (PA) Otters back in September, and Chatham is currently a minus-16 (Plymouth has a minus-39 goal differential as a team) with 33 minutes in penalty time so far this season.
Staying in the Ontario League, one final player with a St. Louis-area connection is lining up for his last kick at the draft can. London Knights' defenseman Dakota Mermis is a native of Alton, and has been on the radar for three years now. Mermis, who hit his 20th birthday last week, has been eligible for the last two drafts, and was ranked 95th in North America in last year’s final Central Scouting rankings, but was bypassed both years. The 5' 11, 190-pound left hand shot is a puck mover and offensive catalyst from the blueline (41 GP, 4-10-14, plus-26, 40 PM). These are qualities that the Blues could use at the pro level next season, as all of their current pro defense prospects are primarily "stay-at-home" physical types. The sole exception to this trend is Cade Fairchild, who has rebounded from a poor start to rack up the assists in the AHL, and is playing on a qualifying offer this year.