Welcome to today’s edition of “Top Shelf Prospects” – a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. As I continue my alphabetical journey, I bring you a look at the St. Louis Blues.
As always you can find a complete listing of my previous articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2012 draft, as there have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed. What I will be doing is linking you to those articles, as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2012-13 roster of the NHL team in question. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL. For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 45-50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not static rules though, as I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
Ruling: At 23 years old, with 52 Career Regular season games and 2 playoff games, Ian Cole is considered graduated.
2012 Draft Prospects Reviewed:
Top Prospect: Vladimir Tarasenko, Right Wing
Born Dec 13 1991 – Yaroslavl, Russia
Height 6.00 — Weight 192
Selected by the St. Louis Blues in round 1 #16 overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
The St. Louis Blues waited patiently for 2 years after drafting Tarasenko in 2010 while the talented winger played out his contact in the KHL. In that time they’ve watched him develop, whether it was captaining Russia to gold at the 2011 World Junior Championships, joining the Men’s team at the IIHF World Championships or having a real breakout performance offensively in the KHL this season. This summer, when his contract ended, the Blues put on the full court press to bring him to North America for next season. To the delight of Blues fans and management, the move paid off as Tarasenko signed an Entry Level Deal and will officially join the Blues organization in 2012-13.
Tarasenko is an offensively gifted right winger blessed with tremendous skill, and the hockey sense to take advantage of it. He does his best work down low, where his great balance, puck protection and stick handling allow him to play a strong puck control game off the cycle. He has great vision and tremendous passing ability. He also knows how to take the puck to the net, and has soft hands to finish in tight, and a quick, accurate shot to finish plays from further out. Tarasenko thrives in the dirty areas of the ice, as he wins more than his share of board battles despite his small frame. When he cuts to net he is hard to contain, and is not easily moved from the front of the net.
When it comes to Tarasenko’s skating, his top end speed is good, but it does not define his game. Rather it is the other areas of his skating that really define him. He is quick, agile, and has great edgework, which helps to make him very elusive. His balance and strength on his skates are superb. He is extremely difficult to knock off the puck. His acceleration is great, and Tarasenko often uses his ability to quickly change speeds to elude a defender.
It is likely that Tarasenko will be on the Blues main roster to start the season (assuming the season starts on time). He is NHL ready, and I’m sure he would not be pleased to learn he came to North America only to find himself making less than his KHL wages playing in the AHL. Tarasenko will be given every opportunity to succeed, and rightly so, the kid has the talent to be a very important player in the NHL.
Top Prospect #2: Jaden Schwartz, Centre/Left Wing
Born Jun 25 1992 — Melfort, SASK
Height 5.10 — Weight 190 — Shoots Left
Selected by the St. Louis Blues round 1 #14 overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
Jaden Schwartz is another talented offensive forward the Blues selected in the first round of the 2010 NHL draft. It might be unfair to call him the Blues number 2 prospect, as its more of a 1a/1b scenario with Tarasenko and Schwartz. Schwartz signed his ELC late last season after finishing his second of two fantastic years at Colorado in the NCAA, and even played in 7 games for the Blues. As a freshman he had an incredible year scoring 47 points in 30 games and bringing Colorado all the way to the West Region final in the Frozen four tournament. He led his team in scoring despite missing significant time with a broken ankle he suffered playing for Team Canada in the 2011 World Junior. This past season he scored 41 points in 30 games for Colorado, and returned to the World Juniors as the Captain of Team Canada, winning a bronze medal. In 2009-10 Schwartz led the USHL in scoring with 83 points in 60 games.
Schwartz has extremely soft hands and is a wizard with the puck. A tremendous stickhandler, he has a lot of impressive moves in his arsenal. He also has a very hard, very accurate wrist shot with a good release. Couple these together and Schwartz is a natural goal scorer. He is also a creative playmaker, with excellent vision and crisp passing skills. He is extremely creative with the puck, but also has the ability to slow the play down to wait for an opening. Schwartz is not afraid to go to the dirty areas of the ice, and is involved in board battles and in working the front of the net. However he still needs to add strength to his frame to be more effective in these areas.
Schwartz’s skating is built off of a long and powerful stride. His top end speed is very good, but his biggest asset is his acceleration and ability to change speeds. Schwartz’s ability to turn it on and quickly reach another gear often leaves defenders in his wake. He also has good ability, and strong edgework which makes him elusive in the offensive end of the ice.
Schwartz is a solid two way player who is an effective penalty killer. He back checks hard and has good positioning. His quick feet and good anticipation help him to cut off passing lanes, and to create turnovers. He is also a willing shot blocker.
Schwartz will be a full-time NHLer soon. It may even happen at the start this season depending on how he looks in training camp. However the more likely scenario is that Schwartz will start off in the AHL on a mission to gain weight and get stronger. Once that happens, expect him to be a stalwart in St. Louis.
Top Prospect #3, Ty Rattie, Right Wing/Left Wing
Born Feb 5 1993 — Airdrie, ALTA
Height 6.00 — Weight 167 — Shoots Right
Selected by the St. Louis Blues in round 2 #32 overall at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft
Ty Rattie’s offensive production exploded last season as his 57 goals were the 2nd most in the WHL, and his 121 points had him finish third. He continued to be a productive player in the WHL playoffs, helping the Portland Winterhawks to the WHL final. This skill set was noticed by the brass at Hockey Canada who had Rattie on the top line at the recent Canada/Russia challenge. He would impress in the four game tournament, and it looks like he will have a good chance to be a key player for Canada at the 2013 World Junior Championships.
Rattie is a talented offensive player, and pure sniper off the wing. He has very good hockey sense and a knack for finding open ice in the offensive zone. He seems to elude defenders and find free patches of ice from which he can unleash a deadly accurate wrist shot. His release is deceptively quick and eludes goaltenders and he has a great one timer. Rattie is also not afraid to go to the front of the net despite his size and works to score rebounds tip ins and deflections. He is also a talented playmaker, finding open teammates and setting them up with crisp, tape to tape passes. Rattie does work to get involved in battles in the corners and along the boards but simply needs to improve his upper body strength to be effective in this area.
Rattie also plays an efficient defensive game with good positioning and an excellent ability to put pressure on the puck carrier. However this is another area where increased strength would greatly improve his game.
Rattie’s skating was described as weak by many analysts in his draft year, and that was certainly the case. However Rattie has taken strides to improve this year. He has improved his stride making it much smoother, and this has led to increases in his top end speed and acceleration. Now he’s not a burner by any means and his skating is still average at best, however the improvements he has already made are a positive sign for the future.
Rattie is likely to spend another season in the WHL. He needs to add bulk and continue to work on his skating. However those are things that can be improved with hard work. Rattie’s natural gift for scoring goals on the other hand, is the type of offensive talent you can’t teach. If he reaches his potential, you can expect him to develop into a solid second line winger in the future.
Sleeper Prospect: Jani Hakanpaa, Defence
Born Mar 31 1992 — Kirkkonummi, Finland
Height 6.05 — Weight 220 — Shoots Right
Selected by the St. Louis Blues round 4 #104 overall 2010 NHL Entry Draft
Hakanpaa is a giant, coming in at 6’5″ and 220 lbs at just 19 years old. The defender has been a member of Finland’s national junior team in each of the last two tournaments. On his club team he graduated to the SM-Liiga this past season.
Mainly a defensive defender, Hakanpaa plays a rugged, physical game. He uses his size and strength to overpower opponents along the boards, and keeps the front of the net clear. He also plays well positionally, and blocks shots and cuts down passing lanes with his huge size. Offensively, Hakanpaa’s biggest asset is a very good slap shot and one timer. He can really let it fly. He’s not a powerplay quarterback though, and one shouldn’t expect big offence from him at the next level.
Like many big defencemen, Hakanpaa requires further work on his skating. He will need to improved his pivots so that he is not beaten to the outside off the rush. His top end speed is decent for a big man, but that isn’t saying a lot, and there is certainly room for improvement. His edgework and agility are below par at this point. Some time spent working on this aspect of his game would certainly improve his chances to make the NHL.
Recently signed to an Entry Level contract by St. Louis, Hakanpaa will likely be loaned back to his SM-Liiga squad, also called the Blues, for the the 2012 season. He is a bit of a project, but his size and physicality make him an intriguing one.
Prior to the lockout, the Blues were consistently among the top teams in the NHL. Unable to get over that last hurdle and win a championship, the Blues were forced to rebuild post-lockout and have been accumulating assets for several years now. They are a good young team who have established a core of solid youngsters like Backes, Perron, Oshie, at forward; Shattenkirk and Pietrangelo on defence, and Halak and Elliot in goal. That core took a giant leap forward this past season under Ken Hitchcock, learning how to and making the playoffs this year. The Blues now will look to a solid group of prospects which also includes goalie Jake Allen, defencemen Jordan Schmaltz and Joel Edmundson, and the forwards discussed to add to and compliment that core. The Blues are building a solid club, and hope that this time they have the talent in place to get over that final hurdle.
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