St. Louis Blues Progress Report: The Young Forwards
When Dave Checketts bought the St. Louis Blues in 2005, he had to change their business model.
The previous Blues ownership of Bill and Nancy Laurie lost a lot of money, and Checketts wasn't going to repeat their mistakes. The Laurie's spent money on free agents and traded prospects for veterans with a win-now philosophy.
But the Blues bottomed out in the 2005-2006 season, finishing last in the NHL as the Lauries looked to cut their losses after the 2004-05 NHL lockout. It snapped the Blues streak of 25 straight seasons of qualifying for the playoffs.
This would give Checketts and his new president of hockey operations, John Davidson, an opportunity to rebuild from within, hording draft picks and using those prospects to create the core of the franchise. The Blues would have to operate like the mid-market franchise that they are, regardless of the NHL's new salary cap structure.
It's critical that these prospects develop into quality NHL players, as their development will determine the Blues' future success. In this article we'll analyse how the offensive prospects that have made the big club are progressing, and which one will be the cream of the crop.
We'll take a look at the forwards in the order of the year they were drafted.
David Backes - C/RW
Backes was drafted in the second round (62nd overall) in 2003 after two seasons of junior hockey with the Lincoln Stars of the USHL. He would go on to play three seasons at Minnesota State University, Mankato after being drafted. After his third season of college hockey, he signed with the Blues.
He played the final 12 regular season games and three playoff games of the 2005-06 AHL season in Peoria.
Backes then started the 2006-07 season in the AHL with the Rivermen. After 39 games in Peoria, Backes was called up to the NHL on Dec. 19, 2006, and has remained with the Blues ever since. His seasoning in junior and college hockey helped him get out of the gate fast, scoring 10 goals and 23 points in 49 games for the Blues
The following season, Backes played in 72 games, primarily as a checking line center, and tallied 13 goals and 31 points to go along with 99 PIM.
In 2008-09, he had a breakout year offensively. After a slow start, he finished the season second on the Blues in goals (31) and points (54). Backes also had 165 PIM to go along with his offensive output, and he and Alex Ovechkin were in the only players in the NHL to register over 30 goals and 200 hits in 2008-09.
Backes has caught the attention of veteran players, fans, and coaches with his style of play.
He is often referred to as a "future captain" by St. Louis management, media and teammates due to his on-ice demeanor, two-way play, leadership skills, and articulate interviews. He is also a member of Team USA's 2010 Olympic team.
At 6'3" and 225 lbs, he is a true power forward while still a fluid skater, and has played center and right wing for the Blues. However his offensive numbers have come down a bit from 2008-09 much like the rest of the Blues, though he may finish with a flourish again.
So the jury is out on whether Backes is a 30-goal, 50-point player of 2008-09, or more of a rugged, checking-line type. Regardless, Backes is developing into a solid, all-around forward, and a highly respected team leader, if not a top-flight scorer in the NHL.
But every team needs a player like Backes.
The Blues view him as a critical building block of their future, after matching an offer sheet Backes received from Vancouver as a restricted free agent in 2008 of $7.5 million over three years. We should expect to see David Backes in Blues uniform for years to come, hopefully filling a role similar to Brian Sutter's in the 80s.
T.J. Oshie - C/RW
Oshie was drafted in the first round (24th overall) in 2005 after one season of junior hockey with the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL. He played three seasons of college hockey at the University of North Dakota. After his junior year, Oshie signed with the Blues in May of 2008, and made the team as a rookie in the 2008-09 season.
A left ankle injury limited Oshie to 57 games in 2008-09, but he still managed to score 39 points via 14 goals and 29 assists and had a +16 rating. He is scoring at a similar clip in 2009-10.
Oshie appears to be the furthest along in his development, and is an alternate on the 2010 U.S. Olympic team.
He has the most complete skill set of the Blues' young prospects. He can score, handle the puck, play both ends of the ice, set up his teammates, and deliver the big hit. He has good speed, can deke defenders, and plays much bigger than his 5'11" and roughly 190 lb frame.
Oshie has become a fan favorite and won the NHL's 2008-09 "Goal of the Year" with a dazzling play against the Canucks. He's worked very hard to improve his game, as he's one of the first to arrive at the rink and one of the last to leave.
If you're looking for the Blues' prospect that's the closest to becoming a bona fide star in the NHL, Oshie is it.
Patrik Berglund - C
Berglund was taken as the 25th overall pick of the 2006 NHL entry draft. The native of Sweden played three seasons in the second-tier Swedish league before coming over to the Blues at age 20.
In his rookie season of 2008-09, Berglund scored 21 goals, had 27 assists, and a +/- rating of +19 in 76 games. He also made the NHL's All-Rookie Team.
In 2009-10, Berglund has definitely had a sophomore slump. A frequent healthy scratch for former head coach Andy Murray, his production has dropped considerably this season.
Berglund is officially listed at 6'4" and 215 lbs, and uses his big body to shield the puck away from defenders. He has good hands and handles the puck well. He's not blazing fast, but gets out on the break and can get by defenders.
Berglund has the potential and skill set to be a big-time playmaking center for the Blues, but has struggled with his decision making and often isn't as aggressive as he should be. He has epitomized the Blues' indecisiveness and tentativeness as a whole, and passes up too many shots.
Berglund has struggled winning draws too, as his career faceoff win percentage is just under 40 percent.
The Blues aren't giving up on Berglund though, and expect him to bounce back under new coach Davis Payne. They hope he can turn into a quality second-line center in the future.
David Perron - LW/RW
The Blues drafted Perron as the 26th pick of the 2007 NHL entry draft. With only one season of major, junior hockey under his belt, the Quebec native made the Blues roster in his rookie season.
The flashiest of the Blues' prospects, Perron's offensive skills got him to the NHL at age 19.
In his rookie season of 2007-08, Perron had 13 goals and 14 assists in 62 games. In 2008-09, Perron notched exactly 50 points, good for third on the Blues, by scoring 15 goals with 35 assists.
In 2009-10, Perron is again scoring at a similar pace as the 2008-09 season. Along with his scoring, Perron is showing more maturity and discipline. He often drew the ire of former head coach Andy Murray for veering from the structure of a play and would also butt heads with him off the ice.
Perron has shown a flair for the spectacular in his time with the Blues.
He can do the "spin-o-ramas," between-the-leg dekes, and slick passes and finishes that fill highlight reels. His moves have made fans long for more ice time for Perron when he would be in Murray's dog house.
But Perron has needed time to mature on and off the ice, and to learn to focus and hustle on every shift and in every practice.
At times he can fall in love with dangling the puck too long or being too flashy, and his mistakes have lead to turnovers. Coaches have prodded him to shoot more and not to hang onto the puck longer than he should.
However, Perron is developing a two-way game, even killing penalties this season and becoming an aggressive forechecker.
He has turned up his work ethic, and teammates have noticed the change in his maturity level. Perron probably has the highest upside of any Blues prospect and may be the quickest skater of them all.
If Perron continues to improve his play in his own end without the puck and learns to minimize the risks of his flashy moves, he will increase his ice time and possibly become a first-line winger. With more ice time and smarter decisions, there's no telling how good Perron could be.
The potential is certainly there for him to become the type of player who scores 100 points per season.
Lars Eller - C/LW
Eller was selected 13th overall by the Blues in the 2007 NHL draft. The Danish born Eller remained in the Swedish Elite League until this season and also played six games for Denmark in the 2008 World Cup of Hockey. He came into this season's training camp committed to remaining in the U.S. whether it be with the Blues or in the AHL with the Peoria Rivermen.
He remained a great unknown to Blues fans outside of highlights.
This year, Eller got his first taste of NHL action, and thus the fans got their first look at the highly touted forward. He had a five-game call up with the Blues this season, scoring a power-play goal against the Flames in his first game. He recorded over 16 minutes of ice time in his second game in the NHL against the Flyers.
Eller was called up due to injuries on the Blues and was sent back down to the AHL to continue adapting to North American hockey when the big club was back to full health. Eller has a very good chance to make the team next season, as the Blues will probably let go some of their veteran forwards.
He is regarded as a two-way forward who can score, but is more a playmaking center. Scouts have noted his high hockey IQ, which can be attributed to his father, Olaf Eller, a former player in Sweden, and is currently the head coach of Denmark's under-20 team.
Until he gets an extended look in the NHL, we won't really know what kind of player Eller can be.
But the pedigree is there, and he projects as a solid two-way forward in the NHL someday. The Blues hope he develops into a top-two line center.
In our next prospect progress report, we'll take a look at the young defensemen in the Blues' system.
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