Welcome to Today’s edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2013 I will be featuring a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will go team by team through the NHL bringing you a look at each Teams Top Prospects. I will be following the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no traded draft picks). You can find all the articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2013 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 2013-14 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 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances (especially due to the fact that the latest NHL season was only 48 games).
The St. Louis Blues came into the 2012-13 season with big expectations after winning the Central Division in 2011-12. The Blues also eliminated the Sharks in the first round in 2012 before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings in a round two sweep.
With a young, growing team and the coaching of Ken Hitchcock it seemed the Blues were poised to take the next step. However, it wasn’t meant to be. While the Blues didn’t really take a step back in 2012-13 still finishing fourth in the conference, before losing in the first round in six games to the same Los Angeles Kings. They didn’t take the expected step forward either. It was another year of learning for a young team, and with a solid group of young players and prospects the Blues still seemed poised to take that next step very, very soon.
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 the time they 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 in 2011-12. Along the way Tarasenko was performing at a level that must have had Blues management salivating at the thought of getting him in the lineup and so they put on the full court press to sign him last summer. When the 2013 season finally opened and Tarasenko was put in the Blues lineup, he proved that he was worth the wait. Tarasenko exploded out of the gate with five goals and twelve points in his first twelve games. However he could not keep the early season momentum, and slowed through a combination of injuries, slumps, and being moved down the Blues lines finishing with 19 points in 38 games. Still Tarasenko showed flashes of the immense promise he has.
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 and beat them wide.
Tarasenko will be back on the Blues main roster in 2013-14, of this there is little doubt. Expect to see him back in the top six and showing off the skills we saw early in this campaign.
Top Prospect #2, 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 has exploded since the Blues made him a second round pick in the 2011 NHL draft. He had back to back 3rd place finishes in the WHL scoring race, and did so this past season despite missing significant time with Team Canada at the World Junior Championships. He continued to be a productive player in the WHL playoffs, scoring 20 goals and 36 points in 21 games and helping the Portland Winterhawks to the WHL Championship.
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 now that he is ready to move up to the pro level.
In addition to his high level offensive game, 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 at the next level.
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 over the last two years. 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 start this season in the AHL. He needs to add bulk and adjust to the pro game. 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
Lets be clear here, this is a pure “super sleeper” prospect. While I like Hakanpaa, he is on the list because he qualifies for the criteria. He is not the Blues third best prospect. Not even close to guys we will discuss below.
Hakanpaa is a giant, coming in at 6’5″ and 220 lbs at just 19 years old. The defender was a member of Finland’s national junior team in each of the 2011 and 2012 tournaments. And has played in the SM-Liiga (the top Finnish men’s league) for the past two seasons. Hakanpaa was signed to an ELC last summer but the Blues loaned him to Finland for one more year. Once that year was up, he came to Peoria and got in some AHL games to begin his North American pro career.
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.
Hakanpaa will likely be back in the AHL next season. He is a bit of a project, but his size and physicality make him an intriguing one.
The Blues have really built an impressive prospect pool in recent years. In goal Jake Allen seems ready to take the next step into the NHL, while Jordan Binnington is coming up fast behind him as he makes his way through the junior ranks. At the NHL level the Blues feature Alex Pietrangelo, and Kevin Shattenkirk, a pair of excellent young defencemen. Ian Cole is also pushing for regular time, while Jordan Schmaltz and Tommy Vanelli will make their way through the college ranks. They also seem set on the wings with Taresenko and Jaden Schwartz in the big leagues, while Rattie, and Dmitri Jaskin who tore up the QMJHL, will be moving up to the AHL; and the newly acquired Magnus Paajarvi should make the team. If there is a weakness for the Blues prospect group it is at centre, but the Blues may have some time, as the centres on the NHL club are young, quality players. Overall the post 2005 lockout rebuild by the Blues has been extremely successful. And after going through some growing pains, this team seems set to emerge as a perennial contender for the foreseeable future.
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