Friday, August 15, 2014

2014 pick Bleackley heads Avalanche top 10 prospects

What are the odds center Conner Bleackley becomes the fifth draft pick in five years by the Colorado Avalanche to go straight to the NHL?

As good and mature as Bleackley is as an 18-year-old, that wouldn't appear to be in the cards since Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon have the top two center positions locked up. Though Bleackley could be eased into a third-line role, there's no reason to rush him and his return as captain of the Red Deer Rebels in the Western Hockey League would appear imminent following training camp.

The bottom line here is that the right-shot pivot might be best suited in a top-six role, and the Avalanche seem well fortified in that area entering 2014-15.

"He's not ready for NHL hockey," Red Deer coach Brent Sutter told The Denver Post. "Conner still needs to grow, especially with skating and defensive responsibilities. His vision needs to improve. I'm not Colorado, I'm not [coach] Patrick Roy, but I feel like he's not NHL-ready. There is growth in his game. There is a reason he went [No. 23 in the 2014 NHL Draft] and not in the top 10, but I do think he's a great prospect for that organization."

Even if Bleackley is returned to Red Deer, there's no denying the success Colorado has had at the draft in recent years. Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly were drafted in 2009 and were key members of the team in 2009-10. Gabriel Landeskog was drafted No. 2 in 2011 and won the Calder Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year in 2012, and MacKinnon was drafted No. 1 in 2013 and won the Calder Trophy in 2014.

Who is next on the list to join that illustrious group?

Here's a look at the Avalanche' top 10 prospects, according to NHL.com:

1. Conner Bleackley, C

How acquired: 1st round (No. 23), 2014 draft

Last season: 71 GP, 29-39-68, Red Deer, WHL

Bleackley led Red Deer in points and finished tied for the team lead in goals. The 6-foot, 197-pound forward was named Red Deer's captain in November 2013 as a 17-year-old and had one assist in one playoff game last season; a one-game tiebreaker against Prince Albert for the final seed in the WHL Eastern Conference. The High River, Alberta native was an alternate captain on Canada's bronze-medal winning team at the 2014 Under-18 World Championship, where he had one goal and two points.

"One thing that attracted us to Conner is his hockey sense and strength on the puck," said Avalanche director of amateur scouting Rick Pracey. "We like his versatility, as we have seen him play all three forward positions. Being a right-handed shot, he potentially addresses a need on the right side on our organizational depth chart. He's a responsible two-way player, and his leadership qualities were a positive factor. Other key quality traits we liked were his competitiveness and instincts."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

2. Chris Bigras, D

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 32), 2013 draft

Last season: 55 GP, 4-22-26, Owen Sound, OHL

The 6-foot-1, 186-pound left-hand shot might just be the best defensive prospect in the system. He's a responsible two-way force with good speed and positioning. He will probably spend one more season in the Ontario Hockey League with the Attack before turning pro in 2015-16. Bigras, voted the best defensive-defenseman in the OHL last season, might also play a role for Canada at the 2015 World Junior Championship in Montreal and Toronto in January.

"He's a good-skating, intelligent, two-way puck moving defenseman," Pracey said.

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

3. Joey Hishon, C

How acquired: 1st round (No. 17), 2010 draft

Last season: 50 GP, 10-14-24, Lake Erie, AHL

Injuries have slowed the progression of Hishon following four productive seasons in the OHL with the Owen Sound Attack. He missed the entire 2011-12 season due to a concussion sustained during the 2011 Memorial Cup and played in just nine games in 2012-13. Hishon, 22, is projected to be a top-six left-handed shooting center at some point in his career. If anything else, Hishon provides the Avalanche great depth down the middle of the ice for the foreseeable future. He wasn't able to participate in training camp last year due to a groin injury, but did play three games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and had one assist.

"He's progressing well after his injury," Pracey said. "He has high-end offensive skill with NHL talent."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

4. Duncan Siemens, D

How acquired: 1st round (No. 11), 2011 draft

Last season: 46 GP, 1-3-4, Lake Erie, AHL

The 6-4, 209-pound stay-at-home defenseman is closing in on a roster spot in the NHL, but he needs to have a strong sophomore season in the AHL to prove he can manage the grind of a full season. Siemens plays a physical game, as evidenced by his 45 penalty minutes as a rookie in Lake Erie last season, and is a good shot blocker. He seems to understand what it will take to get to the next level, but needs to show it on the ice on a consistent basis. Siemens, who turns 21 on Sept. 11, had 17 goals, 124 points and 412 penalty minutes in 258 games spanning four seasons with the Saskatoon Blades in the WHL.

"He's a big, defensive-defenseman who moves well and is competitive in the defensive zone," Pracey said.

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16
5. Troy Bourke, LW

How acquired: 3rd round (No. 72), 2012 draft

Last season: 69 GP, 29-56-85, Prince George, WHL; 15 GP, 3-4-7, Lake Erie, AHL

The 20-year-old Edmonton native finished second on Prince George in scoring in 2013-14 with 85 points. He led the team in assists and finished second in goals while serving as an alternate captain. Bourke joined the Lake Erie Monsters at the conclusion of the WHL regular season and impressed with three goals and seven points in 15 games. The versatile 5-11, 176-pound forward completed his four seasons in Prince George with 84 goals and 236 points in 276 games.

"He's a good hockey player, skilled and competitive with very good instincts," Pracey said.

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

6. Sami Aittokallio, G

How acquired: 4th round (No. 107), 2010 draft

Last season: 36 GP, 15-15-3, 2.65 GAA, .909 save percentage, Lake Erie, AHL; 1 GP, 0-1-0, 4.50 GAA, .833 save percentage, Colorado, NHL

The 22-year-old Finnish goaltender has played in two games for the Avalanche over the past two seasons and has stopped 38 of 43 shots with a 3.36 goals-against average. He will battle Calvin Pickard for the No. 1 spot in Lake Erie this season. Aittokallio (6-1, 181) stood out for Finland at the 2012 World Junior Championship in Calgary, going 3-2 with a 2.52 GAA and .936 save percentage in five games for the fourth place Finns.

"He has a sound combination of size and technique," Pracey said. "He has an efficient and calm demeanor in the net."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

7. Calvin Pickard, G

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 49), 2010 draft

Last season: 43 GP, 16-18-7, 2.85 GAA, .906 save percentage, Lake Erie, AHL

The 6-1, 198-pound Pickard is a workhorse between the pipes. Pickard, 22, has had two productive seasons in the AHL, totaling 37 wins in 90 games with a 2.70 goals-against average and .910 save percentage. During his four seasons with the Seattle Thunderbirds in the Western Hockey League, Pickard appeared in at least 47 games and played in 62 or more during his final three seasons. He left the Thunderbirds as the WHL's all-time record holder in saves (7,027) and minutes played (14,025).

"He's an athletic goalie with quickness, instincts and a good compete level," Pracey said. "He's gaining valuable experience at the AHL level."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

8. Spencer Martin, G

How acquired: 3rd round (No. 63), 2013 draft

Last season: 64 GP, 24-33-5, 3.54 GAA, .899 save percentage, Mississauga, OHL

The 19-year-old Martin struggled a bit in his second season for the Steelheads, who averaged an OHL-low 2.45 goals per game and finished 24-38-6. The Oakville, Ontario native saw his share of breakaways, 2-on-1 attempts and power plays throughout the course of 2013-14. He still has plenty of potential and is regarded very highly by the organization because of his athleticism and intimidating 6-3, 198-pound frame.

"He has that prototypical NHL size for a goalie," Pracey said. "His quickness and movement in the net are his strengths in his athletic-style game."

Projected NHL arrival: 2018-19

9. Dennis Everberg, C/LW

How acquired: Free agent, May 29, 2014

Last season: 47 GP, 17-17-34, Rogle, Allsvenskan

The 6-4, 205-pound power forward closed out the regular season strong for Rogle in Sweden's second division (Allsvenskan), finishing third on the team in points, before producing eight goals and 11 points in 16 playoff games. Everberg, 22, will challenge for a roster spot in training camp in September, but will have no issue if sent to Lake Erie to begin his professional career in North America in the AHL. He offers the skill of most Swedes, but also incorporates a lot of intensity into his game.

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

10. Cody Corbett, D

How acquired: Free agent, March 5, 2014

Last season: 65 GP, 17-44-61, Edmonton, WHL

The undrafted Lakeland, Minn., native showed improvement the past few years, but only last season did that hard work pay off on the way to becoming a dominant two-way player for the Memorial Cup-winning Oil Kings. Corbett (6-1, 194) set a franchise record for goals and points by a defenseman in a season, and also finished as the franchise's all-time leader on defense in goals (30) and points (129), a mark set in only three WHL seasons. The 20-year-old had six goals, 13 points and a plus-12 rating in 21 playoff games, and one goal, six points and a plus-2 rating in five Memorial Cup games on the way to being named to the tournament All-Star Team.

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

Defenseman Barrie emerging talent for Avalanche

Which Tyson Barrie was the real deal last season? There was the player who struggled in the first month and was sent to the minors, and then the one who returned to finish with 13 goals, the most by a Colorado Avalanche defenseman since John-Michael Liles scored 14 in 2006-07.

Barrie's emergence as an offensive force and clutch performer -- his five game-winning goals tied him for third among NHL defensemen -- was a major factor in the Avalanche's Central Division title and first Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance in four years.

Barrie, who turned 23 in July, had all of his goals and 22 of his 25 assists in the final 47 games. He averaged 18:32 in ice time for the season and his plus-17 rating was third best on the team.

Re-signing Barrie is now the Avalanche's top priority. His entry-level contract has expired and he is a restricted free agent.
First-year coach Patrick Roy wanted his defensemen to be more involved in the offense after they scored five goals in 48 games in 2012-13, and they responded by combining for 48 goals with Barrie leading the way.

Barrie, who is 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, said during the season it was difficult for him to go back to the Cleveland-based Lake Erie Monsters in the American Hockey League after Roy touted him as a "top-four" defenseman early in training camp.

Barrie didn't perform very well in the first four games, was a healthy scratch for eight of the next nine, and on Nov. 6 was sent to Lake Erie. He played in six games there and was recalled Nov. 17.

He had two assists in his first game back, a 5-1 win against the Chicago Blackhawks, but he didn't have a point in the next 11 games before scoring his first goal in a 6-2 win against the Dallas Stars on Dec. 16, a game that turned his season around.

"I thought I was ready to play from the beginning of the year," Barrie said last season. "I guess it turned out to be a good thing to go down and get some playing time because I hadn't played in quite some time. But I know I can play in this League. I just need to show them that I can do it."

Barrie, whose father Len played seven NHL seasons, was a third-round pick (No. 64) in the 2009 NHL Draft. He played parts of five seasons with the Kelowna Rockets in the Western Hockey League, where in 2009-10 he was named Defenseman of the Year after scoring 19 goals and 53 assists in 63 games.

Barrie made his NHL debut in 2011-12 and shuttled between Colorado and Lake Erie his first two seasons in the League, when he had two goals and 11 assists in 42 games. Based on his performance last season, Barrie could be a fixture in Denver for a long time assuming the Avalanche are able to re-sign him.

"Luck is definitely up there," said Barrie, whose three overtime goals tied David Jones' 2010-11 single-season franchise record. "Sometimes the puck just comes to you. I've been fortunate to get a few big goals."

But Barrie's season ended in Game 3 of the Western Conference First Round against the Minnesota Wild when he sustained a knee injury on a hit by Matt Cooke. The Avalanche, who lost the series in seven games, missed Barrie's ability to lead breakouts and on power plays, but he's expected to be ready for training camp.

"I think (the injury) was one of the toughest things I've ever had to deal with in hockey," Barrie said after the Avalanche lost Game 7. "It was so exciting, my first NHL playoffs. To have to be on the sidelines watching for the rest of it was pretty tough."

Even as last season came to a devastating end for Barrie and the Avalanche, he already had his eyes on 2014-15.

"It's frustrating, but we've got such a good young team here," Barrie said. "Hopefully I'll be a part of it for a long time and we can make some noise in the playoffs in the future."

Top-six slots among five questions facing Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche improved from the second-worst record in the NHL to third best last season under first-year coach Patrick Roy, won the Central Division and earned a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in four years. But the Avalanche won't surprise teams the way they did last season when they won their first six games and 12 of the first 13 en route to a franchise record-tying 52 wins.

Here are five questions facing the Avalanche:

1. Who will replace Paul Stastny as center on the second line? -- There are plenty of options, but the most likely is to move Calder Trophy-winner Nathan MacKinnon from right wing, where he played most of last season, to his natural center position. MacKinnon had 24 goals and 63 points while spending the majority of the time on a line with left wing Gabriel Landeskog and Stastny, who left as an unrestricted free agent to sign with the St. Louis Blues.
Another possibility is shifting left wing Ryan O'Reilly, another natural center, to the middle. But he had the best season of his five-year NHL career (28 goals, 64 points) while skating with center Matt Duchene; it wouldn't make much sense to separate them.

2. Who will play right wing on a top line that likely will include O'Reilly and Duchene? -- Alex Tanguay had four goals and seven assists in 16 games while skating on the line before he sustained hip and knee injuries that ended his season. P.A. Parenteau and Jamie McGinn were given opportunities after Tanguay was hurt, but Parenteau was traded June 30 to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Daniel Briere. McGinn is expected to play on the third line with John Mitchell and Maxime Talbot. That leaves Tanguay, whose playmaking ability is a valuable asset, and power forward Jarome Iginla, who signed a three-year, $16 million contract as a free agent after scoring 30 goals for the Boston Bruins.

3. Did the Avalanche do enough to improve their weakest link? -- Colorado's defense allowed 40-plus shots on goal in 10 games and between 35 and 39 shots in 18 others. The Avalanche added a much-needed physical presence in Brad Stuart, who was acquired from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and a sixth-round selection in 2017. He'll be paired with Erik Johnson, whose 39 points matched a career high.

Colorado signed Zach Redmond to a two-year, $1.5 million contract, believing he has the potential to develop the way Nick Holden did last season. Holden, who played in seven NHL games in five previous professional seasons, blossomed into a top-four role. He played a physical style and had 10 goals and a plus-12 rating in 54 games. Redmond, 25, played in 18 games with the Winnipeg Jets in four years with the organization. The Avalanche have yet to re-sign restricted free agent Tyson Barrie, who is expected to be fully recovered from the knee injury he sustained in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

4. Can Vezina Trophy finalist Semyon Varlamov build off last season, and will Reto Berra be a capable backup? -- Varlamov's work with goalie coach Francois Allaire worked wonders for his game and his confidence, and he should be entering the prime of his career at age 26. The Avalanche think so, having signed him to a five-year, $29.5 million contract extension that begins this season.
Berra, who replaces Jean-Sebastien Giguere as the No. 2 goalie, remains a question mark. He had an 0-1-1 record in two starts with a 5.83 goals-against average and .781 save percentage after the Avalanche acquired him March 5 from the Calgary Flames in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2014 draft. Colorado signed Berra to a three-year, $4.35 million contract and is hopeful Allaire's magic will pay off the way it did with Varlamov.

5. Unlike last year, will the Avalanche have enough depth up front to take pressure off the top two lines? -- Colorado appears to have addressed this issue by adding Briere and center Jesse Winchester, who signed a two-year, $1.8 million contract as a free agent. Briere isn't a top-six forward anymore, but he and Winchester combined for 22 goals last season and give Roy plenty of options for the third and fourth lines with McGinn, Mitchell, Talbot and Cody McLeod. Patrick Bordeleau, Marc-Andre Cliche and rookie Joey Hishon are also in the mix.

Iginla in, Stastny out as Avalanche lineup changes

After three seasons without making the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Colorado Avalanche welcomed a new era in 2013-14 helmed by a pair of franchise legends.

The results, with Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic in charge, were a smashing success. Colorado not only returned to the postseason, but finished with the second-most points in franchise history and won a division title for the first time since Roy and Sakic were on the roster.

Led by a collection of young stars, the Avalanche were one of the most exciting teams in the NHL. They defied analytics during the regular season before the Minnesota Wild ended their season in the Western Conference First Round.

It was an interesting offseason in Colorado. Center Paul Stastny left for the division rival St. Louis Blues on a pretty reasonable contract, and was replaced by Jarome Iginla while wunderkind Nathan MacKinnon slides over to center. P.A. Parenteau was traded to the Montreal Canadiens for Daniel Briere.

The Avalanche also acquired defenseman Brad Stuart, so it was clear they were looking for more veterans. Whether the team is improved could also be hindered by what the advanced stats-friendly crowd expects to be a precipitous regression in 2014-15.

Here is the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Avalanche:

FORWARDS

Gabriel Landeskog - Nathan MacKinnon - Jarome Iginla

Alex Tanguay - Matt Duchene - Ryan O'Reilly

Jamie McGinn - John Mitchell - Daniel Briere

Cody McLeod - Marc-Andre Cliche - Maxime Talbot

Jesse Winchester - Patrick Bordeleau

Matt Duchene was on the fringes of the MVP discussion early last season, and MacKinnon could end up there in 2014-15. He easily won the Calder Trophy and Colorado's ability to possess the puck better this season could hinge on him becoming a truly dominant player.

Duchene played a lot with Ryan O'Reilly last season, so Iginla could slide into MacKinnon's old spot while he moves over to replace Stastny. Alex Tanguay was hurt for much of 2013-14, but either he, Jamie McGinn or Briere could earn prime real estate next to Duchene and O'Reilly.

Colorado's problems with puck possession include a below-average defense and possibly flaws in the system/philosophy, but the bottom-six forwards were a big reason. If everyone is healthy, Briere's arrival could push McGinn or Maxime Talbot down to the fourth line, which was a sinkhole for possession last season. New addition Jesse Winchester could also claim a regular role and help.

DEFENSEMEN

Jan Hejda - Erik Johnson

Brad Stuart - Tyson Barrie*

Nick Holden - Nate Guenin

Ryan Wilson

Sakic called Stuart a "proven, quality defenseman" in a release after his signing, and later told reporters he could even see time next to Erik Johnson on the top pairing. Stuart's performance with the San Jose Sharks slipped in recent seasons, and the Los Angeles Kings targeted him with great success during the playoffs last season.

His arrival likely pushes Nate Guenin down to the third pairing with Nick Holden, who earned a three-year contract extension after being a late-bloomer. Johnson and Jan Hejda handle most of the tough assignments for Roy.

The key to the whole group is probably Tyson Barrie, who put up very nice offensive numbers last season. He's unlikely to shoot nearly 13 percent again. He was also extremely sheltered in his role, so can he offer similar production while taking on tougher conditions? If so, that could also help the team's ability to possess the puck.

Assuming Barrie signs a one-way contract, the Avalanche will have eight defensemen on one-way contracts plus Holden, so someone (or two someones) from a group of Ryan Wilson, Zach Redmond and Maxim Noreau are not likely to start the season with the club. There are also young players like Stefan Elliott, Duncan Siemens and Chris Bigras to consider, but the situation with the one-way contracts makes this a crowded blue line.
GOALTENDERS

Semyon Varlamov

Reto Berra

Semyon Varalmov flashed plenty of raw talent during his time with the Washington Capitals, but consistency was a problem. Working with Roy and Francois Allaire helped him produce his best season in the League and he became a Vezina Trophy finalist.

Varlamov might need to be every bit as good in 2014-15. He had some help, especially early in the season, from Jean-Sebastien Giguere. He retired and Reto Berra, who struggled in two starts after arriving from Calgary, will be Varlamov's backup.

ALSO IN THE MIX: F Joey Hishon, F Colin Smith, D Stefan Elliott, D Zach Redmond, G Sami Aittokallio

*Restricted free agent

Avalanche view last season's surprise as springboard

Expectations are high for the Colorado Avalanche heading into 2014-15 following a remarkable turnaround that featured a surprising Central Division championship and their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2010.

The season ended with a seven-game loss to the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference First Round, but the postseason experience was viewed as a necessary step in this young team's development.

"I think this is a big turning point for this organization," center Matt Duchene told the NHL Network. "I think you're going to start seeing the Avalanche playing deep into the spring and summer months."
After finishing last in the Northwest Division and 29th in the NHL in 2012-13, the Avalanche rebounded under a new management team led by former stars Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy. Sakic, named executive vice president of hockey operations in May 2013, hired Roy as vice president of hockey operations and coach.

Roy, who previously coached the Quebec Remparts in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, formed what he called a "partnership" with the players and guided the Avalanche to a 52-22-8 record and 112 points. Colorado had the third-best record in the League and Roy won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.

"This is probably the most surprising division championship that this team ever had," Roy said of its first title since 2002-03, Roy's final season as a player. "Nobody expected to see us where we were, to finish ahead of Chicago and St. Louis. It is something very special. From the get-go our guys came to camp and they were ready and they wanted to be different and they wanted to see a change."

It may not be possible to duplicate as much success -- Colorado won't catch anyone by surprise this time -- but there is plenty of cause for optimism with a slew of talented forwards led by Duchene, Calder Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O'Reilly, along with Vezina Trophy finalist Semyon Varlamov and the additions of right wing Jarome Iginla and defenseman Brad Stuart.

The Avalanche weren't able to re-sign unrestricted free-agent center Paul Stastny, who signed a four-year, $28 million contract with the St. Louis Blues after spending eight seasons in Colorado. Defenseman Andre Benoit left to sign a one-year, $800,000 contract with the Buffalo Sabres and the Avalanche traded right wing P.A. Parenteau to the Montreal Canadiens for center Daniel Briere. Backup goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere and defenseman Cory Sarich were expected to retire.

Despite the loss of Stastny, the Avalanche head to training camp with more experience, depth and toughness than they had when the season ended.

"We're pretty happy with where we are right now," Sakic said after signing Iginla, 37, to a three-year, $16 million contract; center Jesse Winchester, 30, to a two-year, $1.8 million contract; defenseman Zach Redmond, 25, to a two-year, $1.5 million contract; and acquiring Stuart, 34, from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and a sixth-round pick in 2017.

"Our core guys are all young and we wanted to surround them with great veteran leadership, and we've done that," Sakic said. "We feel our third and fourth lines, we were lacking depth in the playoffs and we really noticed it against Minnesota, and we feel we've got some depth down there as well."

Duchene, 23, Landeskog, 21, O'Reilly, 23, and MacKinnon, 18, led a balanced attack by scoring between 63 and 70 points while setting single-season personal bests. With Stastny gone, MacKinnon is expected to move from right wing to center, his natural position. He could anchor a line with Landeskog and Iginla, who last year scored 30 goals with the Boston Bruins.

The Avalanche avoided arbitration with O'Reilly by re-signing him to a two-year, $12 million contract. He scored a team-high 28 goals and won the Lady Byng Trophy. One of the League's lower-paying teams in recent seasons, the Avalanche are about $3 million under the $69 million salary cap and still have to re-sign mobile defenseman Tyson Barrie, a restricted free agent who came into his own with career highs in goals (13) and points (38) in 64 games.

The Avalanche allowed the sixth-most shots (2,678) in the League last season and are counting on the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Stuart to help make Varlamov's job a little easier. Stuart is expected to be paired with 6-4, 232-pound Erik Johnson, who averaged 23 minutes in ice time and set a career high with 39 points.

Defenseman Nick Holden (6-4, 207), a pleasant surprise after signing as a free agent, scored 10 goals in 54 games and was rewarded with a three-year, $4.95 million contract extension that begins in 2015-16. He should be even better with a full NHL season behind him.

Goaltender Allen leads Blues' top 10 prospects

The St. Louis Blues have two things going for them: they're highly skilled up and down the roster and their top players still have their best years ahead of them.

However, that makes it very difficult for any young player looking to break into the lineup.

"It's a tough situation for a young player coming in," Blues director of player development Tim Taylor told NHL.com. "We can be very easygoing with them and patient with players to develop because we don't need them to step in and be a big part of the team. We let them mature and when they're ready, and we feel they're ready, they can step in."

A few of those players might be ready this season, but the majority will have to bide their time while refining their game at lower levels.

Here's a look at the Blues' top 10 prospects, according to NHL.com:

1. Jake Allen, G

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 34), 2008 draft
Last season: 52 GP, 33-16-3, 2.03 GAA, .928 save percentage, 7 SO, Chicago, AHL

After being named the best goaltender in the American Hockey League last season, it's obvious the 23-year-old is ready for a full-time job in the NHL. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound goaltender will start the season in St. Louis in a platoon with veteran Brian Elliott.

"He's spent four years in the minors and a little time in the NHL," Taylor said. "He's seasoned and ready to go. His maturity level is at a good spot right now. We think he can handle the pressure and everyday life of an NHL player. He's going to push Brian Elliott."

Projected NHL arrival: 2014-15

2. Ty Rattie, RW

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 32), 2011 draft

Last season: 72 GP, 31-17-48, Chicago, AHL

Rattie, 21, certainly didn't look like a player going through his first full season of professional hockey. He tied for fourth in the AHL in goals and for eighth among rookies in points. To make the jump to the next level, the 6-foot, 178-pound forward needs to add strength and consistency to his game.

"He knows what he has to do this summer," Taylor said. "He has to put a little weight on, some muscle, and he has to be ready to compete every day, every time he's on the ice, for loose pucks and battles. … Ty has to work on that, being strong on the puck, winning battles, and coaches will put him in situations where he can succeed offensively too."

Projected NHL arrival: 2014-15

3. Dmitrij Jaskin, RW

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 41), 2011 draft

Last season: 42 GP, 15-14-29, Chicago, AHL; 18 GP 1-1-2, St. Louis

Like Rattie, 21-year-old Jaskin made a smooth transition in his first full professional season; he also impressed enough to play 18 games in the NHL. For Taylor, what stands out about Jaskin is his size (6-2, 196), physicality and versatility, but there's one particular area that needs to be improved if Jaskin is to earn full-time NHL employment.

"He can be a top-six forward and he can be very beneficial to the bottom-six," Taylor said. "He's a big, physical forward. He plays physical, he's always around the puck. The thing we're looking for this summer … is getting that extra step. He's going through some skating lessons with Sean Ferrell, our video coach, and he's working on that. He's a very committed player.

"He's a guy that I would assume will get a lot of games in the NHL this year. It depends on his summer and his growth in his skating."

Projected NHL arrival: 2014-15

4. Robby Fabbri, C

How acquired: 1st round (No. 21), 2014 draft

Last season: 58 GP, 45-42-87, plus-45, Guelph, OHL

The 5-foot-10, 170-pound forward got better as the season went on, with 13 goals and 28 points in 16 Ontario Hockey League playoff games to win the postseason MVP award and help Guelph reach the Memorial Cup. Watching Fabbri, 18, at development camp, Taylor said he was reminded of a teammate from his playing days.

"He's a guy that reminds me a little bit of Marty St. Louis," said Taylor, who played with St. Louis during his time with the Tampa Bay Lightning. "He's smaller, but he's always on the puck. He doesn't wait for the puck to come to him. He's always going after it and getting it. He demands the puck. That's the one thing, if you're a little smaller player you've got to be on the puck and you have to go to the hard scoring areas. … I see some similarities in his worth ethic, around the puck, on the puck, and his maturity level with the puck. He makes smart decisions. He's creative. He goes to those areas. He's not afraid to get in there and get the puck. He's always on it."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

5. Jordan Binnington, G

How acquired: 3rd round (No. 88), 2011 draft

Jordan Binnington, considered a top goaltending prospect, is expected to get the starting job with the Blues' AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves. (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)
Last season: 40 GP, 23-13-3, 2.35 GAA, .922 save percentage, Kalamazoo, ECHL

Don't let the fact that he spent the season in the ECHL fool you: Binnington, 21, is a top goaltending prospect who the Blues felt needed playing time, not bench time backing up Allen in the AHL. With Allen's elevation to the Blues, Binnington will enter this season as the starter with the Chicago Wolves. The goal for him is to get strong enough to hold up to the rigors of being the No. 1 goalie in the AHL.

"Jordan is in that position where he has to get stronger (6-1, 167) and he has to get bigger," Taylor said. "Goalies now, they don't just throw them in the net. They're pretty good athletes now. They're very athletic, they move. That old time when a goalie didn't have their skates sharpened is a thing of the past. They have edges on their skates, they move side to side, their agility, their quickness. Everything about a goalie now is very athletic and that's one thing that Jordan has to get stronger this year to get himself to that standard."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

6. Jordan Schmaltz, D

How acquired: 1st round (No. 25), 2012 draft

Last season: 41 GP, 6-18-24, North Dakota, NCHC

Schmaltz was better as a sophomore than as a freshman, and the Blues hope that trajectory continues upward as the 6-2, 190-pound defenseman enters his third college season at age 20.

"Last year he took a step forward and his personality changed a little bit on the ice," Taylor said. "He was more aggressive, he controlled the game a little more. With his defense partner [Dillon] Simpson turning pro, now Jordan is going to be the man. It's going to be a good year for him. He's pretty excited about it. His brother [Nick Schmaltz] is coming in to play with him. We had him at development camp and he was outstanding. I thought he really controlled the play. We had 3-on-3 games, and every time he was on the ice he created something."

Projected NHL arrival: 2017-18

7. Thomas Vannelli, D

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 47), 2013 draft

Last season: 60 GP, 14-27-41, Medicine Hat, WHL

After taking summer classes at the University of Minnesota, Vannelli, 19, opted to jump to the Western Hockey League. It ended up being a strong decision for him from a development standpoint.

"He's come a long way since we drafted him," Taylor said. "He's put on some good weight (6-2, 165), he's matured. It was a good situation for him last year in Medicine Hat and it's going to be a good situation for him this season. He's going to play a lot of minutes, he's going to be demanded to log a ton of minutes and be a leader for that team. It's a good situation for him to mature as a player. Another year in the Western Hockey League will do him good."

Projected NHL arrival: 2017-18

8. Joel Edmundson, D

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 46), 2011 draft

Last season: 64 GP, 4-4-8, 108 PIM, Chicago, AHL

The Blues' trade of defenseman Roman Polak has left an open spot for a physical defenseman, and the 6-foot-4, 207-pound 21-year-old could be a reliable replacement.

"The only thing missing from his game is that consistently being hard on the puck," Taylor said. "Once he gets that, he's going to spend a lot of time in the NHL. … He moves the puck well, we just want him to be consistently hard on players and make it a tough day for everyone. He's got that in him and we'd like to see it every day."

Projected NHL arrival: 2014-15

9. Ivan Barbashev, C/LW

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 33), 2014 draft

Last season: 48 GP, 25-43-68, Moncton, QMJHL

Much like Fabbri, the Blues were pleasantly surprised that Barbashev remained on the board when their turn came up in the second round of the draft. The 18-year-old power forward (6-foot, 180) had two points in seven games to help Russia win a bronze medal at the IIHF World Junior Championship and 10 points in six Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoff games.

"We feel he's a North American-style player," Taylor said. "He's a guy that's going to run through you. He's a guy that likes the physical play. When the game is on the line, he's not going to fade away; he's going to step to the forefront and score a big goal or make a big play. We like his physical nature and how he's on the puck and he's not afraid to go into those areas. He initiates. He's skilled but he's a power forward. We like he's got another year of junior to develop. … He's got to put some strong muscle on him. If he wants to play that game that we drafted him for, he's got to put some weight on to compete against NHL players."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

10. Colton Parayko, D

How acquired: 3rd round (No. 86), 2012 draft

Last season: 37 GP, 7-19-26, University of Alaska-Fairbanks, WCHA

The first time the Blues measured Parayko, he was 6-foot-4, 199 pounds. When he came to St. Louis for the team's development camp, he was up to 222 pounds with 3 percent body fat. That level of conditioning, combined with a strong skill set, has management very happy with the 21-year-old emerging prospect.

"There's nothing not to like [about his game]," Taylor said. "He's in a great situation where he's playing, he's logging a ton of minutes, he's learning the game, he's getting bigger, getting stronger. His legs need a bit of extra weight to carry that big body. He's got a great shot. He's offensively minded, he's in great position all the time. He understands how big he is and he doesn’t chase the game, he lets the game come to him. We're very excited about his progress and where he's at."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

Blues add center depth to already formidable lineup

There are a lot of great teams in the Western Conference, and it has been that way for much of the salary-cap era.

In the past three seasons, no team in the West has won more regular-season games than the St. Louis Blues. Only the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins have won more in the NHL.

The Blues have famously had very little success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs during this time. While either the Los Angeles Kings or Chicago Blackhawks have won the Cup each of the past three seasons, one of those two clubs has also ended hockey season in St. Louis.

Like several other teams in the West, the Blues decided they needed more help at center and acted. Paul Stastny was the best free agent available at the position, and Jori Lehtera was finally convinced to come to North America.

The Blues also lost Vladimir Sobotka to the Kontinental Hockey League, and are going in a different direction in net. Will they finally be able to translate regular-season success into the postseason?

Here is a look at the 2014-15 projected lineup for the Blues:

FORWARDS

Alexander Steen - Paul Stastny - T.J. Oshie

Jaden Schwartz - David Backes - Vladimir Tarasenko

Magnus Paajarvi - Jori Lehtera - Patrik Berglund

Peter Mueller - Steve Ott - Maxim Lapierre

Joakim Lindstrom - Ryan Reaves

Plan A was to have Stastny and Lehtera center the top two lines with Sobotka in the middle on the third line, pushing the top two centers from the past couple seasons, David Backes and Patrik Berglund, to the wing. Steve Ott was re-signed almost immediately after Sobotka's exit was reported, but here is a slightly different take on Plan B.

Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko flanked Berglund with a lot of success last season, but if Backes goes to the wing one of Schwartz, Tarasenko, T.J. Oshie or Alexander Steen is ending up on the third line. That's certainly plausible, but in this alignment the top four wings stay put and Backes stays in the middle. He's strong on faceoffs, and playing with the two kids might help cover for the lack of typical, No. 1 center-type playmaking in his game.

There are lots of moving parts in the bottom six as well. Peter Mueller and Joakim Lindstrom are back from playing in Europe, and top prospects Dmitrij Jaskin and Ty Rattie will be pushing for spots, though with 12 forwards on one-way contracts (presumably 13 after Schwartz signs) and Tarasenko, there isn't going to be room for everyone.

DEFENSEMEN

Alex Pietrangelo - Jay Bouwmeester

Barret Jackman - Kevin Shattenkirk

Ian Cole - Carl Gunnarsson

Jordan Leopold

The top four players are back, but the Blues traded Roman Polak for Carl Gunnarsson and signed a couple of guys (Chris Butler and Nate Prosser) to two-way contracts. The bottom three here are all lefties, and it could end up being a semi-regular rotation between them.

Alex Pietrangelo earned a second top-five finish in the Norris Trophy voting and is now a two-time second-team All-Star. Kevin Shattenkirk thrived while being deployed more regularly than the other defensemen in offensive situations, and then led the team in scoring during the postseason.

Toss in Jay Bouwmeester, and this top three can hang with Chicago and Los Angeles. Even if they are slightly behind in the pecking order, the depth might be narrowly better to make up for it.

GOALTENDERS
Brian Elliott

Jake Allen

The Blues let Ryan Miller go, allowing Brian Elliott and Jake Allen to compete for playing time. That sounds pretty similar to letting Elliott compete with Jaroslav Halak for two years, which led to acquiring Miller.

Elliott has never played more than 55 games in a season, and his back-to-back 55s were in 2009-10 and 2010-11, so it's been a while. Allen could be the long-term answer, but expect each goalie to play a lot this season. Remember, the Blues were the first team to let Ben Bishop go, and Allen was part of the reason why.

If either goalie gets hurt, the Blues have two interesting prospects in the system, but neither has much experience at top levels. Jordan Binnington played one game in the American Hockey League last season while spending most of it in the ECHL, while Niklas Lundstrom played only two games at the highest level in Sweden.

ALSO IN THE MIX: F Ty Rattie, F Dmitrij Jaskin, D Chris Butler, D Nate Prosser, G Jordan Binnington

---

Blues happy to get Lehtera to NHL at last

When the St. Louis Blues selected Jori Lehtera with their third-round pick at the 2008 NHL Draft, an element of the unknown followed the Finnish-born center, one that had nothing to do with his on-ice skills.

The looming question was whether the Blues could get Lehtera to North America.

Lehtera, 26, made impressive strides at the international level as well as playing for Yaroslavl Lokomotiv and Sibir Novosibirsk of the Kontinental Hockey League. Ultimately, he turned out to be the wild-card free agent signing that nobody in St. Louis saw coming.

When Blues general manager Doug Armstrong attempted to get Lehtera to the NHL before the 2013-14 season and was turned down, it was viewed as a possible last-gasp attempt to bring him to St. Louis.

Who would have thought a simple conversation at the 2014 Sochi Olympics would change the dynamics?
"I had a good chat with him, quite honestly, at the Olympics at the dining hall," Armstrong said of Lehtera, who on July 1 signed a two-year contract worth $5.5 million. "I told him that we were disappointed that we couldn't come to an agreement, and he said at the end of the day he felt he made a mistake, which was the first step in saying, 'Well, if you can rectify that mistake, if you can get out of your contract, we'd love to have you.' ... This was our last and only opportunity to deal with him with no outside competition. We'd been dealing with the competition of the KHL, and the KHL has been winning up until this year.

"There's very little question he's ready to step in and be a contributing factor in the NHL. We've been working on this for a while since he said he could get out of his deal, but we've been trying to keep it a little bit under wraps not to get anyone's hopes up. He had to do the work first to get out of the deal before we could do anything."

Lehtera reportedly paid money out of his own pocket to get out of his KHL contract. That's how badly he wanted to rectify what he viewed as an error in judgment. And with the Blues in need of playmaking forwards, Lehtera fits the need for a No. 2 center, perhaps playing between Vladimir Tarasenko, his teammate with Sibir Novosibirsk, and Jaden Schwartz.

"You could tell [Lehtera's] just another big forward that we could really use," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk told NHL.com. "He's got great speed and great skill."

Lehtera scored 55 goals and had 100 assists in four seasons in the KHL, including 12 goals and 44 points in 48 games in 2013-14. He had a goal and four assists for Finland's bronze medal-winning team in Sochi, then had three goals and nine assists in 10 games at the World Championship.

"I talked to two of the coaches during the Olympics what [Lehtera] was like and things like that," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, an assistant for Canada in Sochi. "They really liked him. The word that kept coming up was hockey savvy. They really felt like he's got hockey savvy."

Hitchcock has seen enough to know Lehtera can make an impact.

"I don't know where he's going to fit," Hitchcock said. "All I know is he's going to fit. For me, I don't know where he's going to fit, but with that type of moxie and hockey sense and gamesmanship, he's going to find a place to play."

Stastny's impact, goalies among Blues' five questions

The St. Louis Blues have had to stand by helplessly and watch the Los Angeles Kings (twice) and Chicago Blackhawks hoist the Stanley Cup the past three seasons.

After first-round losses to the Kings in 2012 and '13 and to the Blackhawks last spring, the Blues knew they couldn't stand pat. They had to upgrade in positions that the Kings and Blackhawks used as strengths in order to expose the Blues' weaknesses.

Here are five questions facing the Blues as they try to challenge for a Stanley Cup:

1. What impact will newcomer Paul Stastny have? -- The Blues needed an upgrade in the middle, and landing the biggest unrestricted free-agent center on the market was worth the $28 million they will pay Stastny over the next four seasons.

Stastny, 28, scored 25 goals and had 60 points in 71 games last season with the Colorado Avalanche. He gives the Blues a bona fide No. 1 playmaking center.

"We're getting Paul right in the prime of his career and I have little doubt that he'll be a very, very confident player over these four years," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said.
Coming to a Stanley Cup contender and returning to the place where he grew up, Stastny saw the opportunity as a no-brainer.

"I look at St. Louis and their window to win a Cup is now," Stastny said.

2. Can the Blues compete for the Cup with their revamped goaltending? -- The Blues allowed Ryan Miller to leave via free agency and will confidently turn to veteran Brian Elliott and rookie Jake Allen, who has 15 games of NHL experience under his belt.

The Blues feel like Elliott, who signed a three-year, $7.5 million contract, earned the right to go into the season as the No. 1.

"[Ellliott's] watched two other guys [Miller and Jaroslav Halak] get the ball," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "Now he feels like it's his turn. There's still going to be competition, but I think Brian's going to start as the incumbent based on experience and all the work he's put in."

3. Will the additional depth at center pay off? -- Adding Stastny, Jori Lehtera, Peter Mueller and Joakim Lindstrom to a group that includes David Backes, Patrik Berglund, Steve Ott and Maxim Lapierre gives the Blues strong reinforcement despite losing Vladimir Sobotka to the Kontinental Hockey League.

"We wanted to add depth, we wanted to add competitive depth, we wanted to strengthen the middle of the ice and that's what we've done," Hitchcock said. "We've added scoring depth and we added real definitive depth at the center ice position."

4. Are the Blues physically vulnerable on the blue line? -- St. Louis is going with the formula of 'You can't hit what you can't catch.' The Blues traded physical defenseman Roman Polak to the Toronto Maple Leafs for puck-mover Carl Gunnarsson and added free agents Chris Butler and Nate Prosser to a mix of Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Kevin Shattenkirk and Ian Cole to go with more rugged guys like Barret Jackman and Jordan Leopold, meaning that they're going with a more conventional puck-moving style on the back line.

"We're less physical but better transitionally," Hitchcock said.

5. Are Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko ready for larger roles? -- The 2010 first-round picks made their presence felt throughout the season and certainly against the Blackhawks in the playoffs. Each is 22 and coming off impressive point-producing second seasons in the League.

Schwartz had 25 goals and 56 points in 81 games. Tarasenko had 21 goals and 43 points in 64 games. They'll be given significant roles moving forward.

Blues look for answers to playoff struggles

Talking about how and why they lost in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs was bad enough for the St. Louis Blues. Little did they know they would be addressing the same issues as reasons for being ousted one year later.

Those points of emphasis are what the Blues have been dealing with since losing in the first round to the Chicago Blackhawks in April. The six-game loss to the Blackhawks followed the same script as 2013, when the Blues lost to the Los Angeles Kings in six games after they had grabbed a 2-0 series lead.

Amid what seemed like a myriad of issues, one problematic obstacle always seemed to hover as an Achilles' heel: the inability to score the timely goal.

The Blues, who finished 52-23-7 (good for 111 points and a second-place finish in the Central Division), were steadfast and strong during the regular season. They were regarded as a potential replacement for the Blackhawks and Kings as the top team in the Western Conference. But the Kings (twice) and Blackhawks have knocked the Blues down a notch and served notice to St. Louis that it hasn't quite reached that top echelon.

The Blues even went with an all-in mentality near the NHL Trade Deadline with the acquisition of goalie Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres. It didn't make a difference.

"We're doing some things correctly, but we're not doing enough correctly to win in April, May and June," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. "Quite honestly, I've got to quit worrying about May. We've got to get out of April first, and we're not doing that yet. My job responsibility is to peel back the layers and see if we can work together with this group to see if we can get to a new level or make necessary changes to get to a new level."

With failed opportunities, changes seemed inevitable. Armstrong addressed some glaring needs, turned the page, retooled the roster and positioned it for what he hopes is a Stanley Cup run.

The Blues were able to sign the top unrestricted free agent center on the market in Paul Stastny, a playmaker who immediately fills the No. 1 center role. They also signed 2008 third-round pick Jori Lehtera, Joakim Lindstrom and Peter Mueller to go with David Backes, Patrik Berglund, Steve Ott and Maxim Lapierre. Vladimir Sobotka departed for the Kontinental Hockey League.

The one major change on the blue line was trading Roman Polak to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Carl Gunnarsson, a move made to open up more playing time for Ian Cole. Chris Butler and Nate Prosser were signed for depth purposes.

"It's deeper and it has to be," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told NHL.com when asked about his team's roster. "There's no choice [but] to keep pace in the West. There's other teams that improved dramatically too. Chicago got better, L.A.'s gotten better because they got those young guys that are going to get full-time service. Anaheim's better, Dallas is better, Nashville's better, Colorado's a top team. This is to keep pace.
"We've done some good things to help ourselves, but so has everybody else. This was done just to make sure we keep pace because this is how strong it is in the West now."

Assistant coaches Gary Agnew and Corey Hirsch were replaced by former Carolina Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller and Jim Corsi, who spent the past 16 seasons as goalie coach with the Buffalo Sabres.

The team's biggest question mark heading into 2014-15 is in goal.

The Blues allowed Miller to leave as an unrestricted free agent and opted to keep Brian Elliott. The 29-year-old, who re-signed a three-year, $7.5 million contract, will team with Jake Allen, who was 9-4-0 with a 2.46 goals-against average and .905 save percentage with the Blues in 2012-13, then spent last season with the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League.

"I look at it as an earned opportunity for Brian," Hitchcock said of Elliott, who is 55-24-7 with a 1.86 GAA and .932 save percentage in three seasons with the Blues. "He's paid his dues, he's earned the right.

"With Jake, we just need him to keep building on the things that he's done so well at the American [Hockey] League level. ... Every place Jake's gone with us, he's taken advantage of it. He's done a heck of a job in showing us that he's ready to play in the National Hockey League. I think we've got a good situation."