Suffering hockey deprivations at the midway point of the offseason? Check out what happened during the first day of the St. Louis Blues’ annual prospect camp.
On Tuesday afternoon, the St. Louis Blues kicked off their yearly prospect camp, which has become a summer mecca for hockey-starved fans at the IceZone in Hazelwood. While the crop of talent at this year’s camp is decidedly less intriguing, since the four most exciting prospects at last year’s camp–Robby Fabbri, Ivan Barbashev, Colton Parayko, and Jordan Schmaltz–graduated to the professional ranks in 2015-16, it’s still a fun opportunity to see the players that will play a part in the franchise’s future. Since it’s once again just a four-day camp this year, the players need to come out firing if they want to make a major impression, and several guys did just that on Tuesday. Here were a few notable happenings from Tuesday’s practice.
- Defenseman Tommy Vannelli, a second-round pick in 2013, was the best player on the ice on Tuesday. The 21-year-old, who missed nearly all of what was supposed to be his first AHL campaign in 2015-16 after suffering an injury, looked like a man amongst boys during the first scrimmage. While he’s always had above-average skating ability and puck-moving skills, Vannelli clearly has bulked up and is playing with more strength and confidence than he ever has at any prospect camp before. Vannelli showed no visible signs of the injury persisting, and if he continues making this type of progress, perhaps he’ll position himself for a call-up to the NHL club at some point next season.
- One guy who was impressive in last year’s camp and stood out again on Tuesday was 20-year old Finnish defenseman Niko Mikkola. Mikkola, who’s listed at 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds, looks like he has the ability to develop into a lefthanded-shooting version of Colton Parayko if he continues to add strength to his frame, which is somewhat slender at the moment. Mikkola skates with great speed, and he showed off a powerful slapshot on Monday. He still needs to get more physical, but at such a young age, Mikkola looks like a guy who could provide great value relative to the spot that he was selected (5th round, 127th overall) in the draft.
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- Defenseman Grant Frederic appears to be going the college route, as he’s scheduled to attend Miami University in the Fall. But the St. Louis native, who’s attending camp on a tryout basis, was one of the most impressive players on Tuesday, and he seems to be writing himself a solid resume for whenever he decides to end his collegiate career. Frederic, a 6-foot-3, 205-pounder, showed off some fantastic playing strength, skating with an edge and even laying out an opponent at mid-ice during the scrimmage session. Frederic also displayed a strong, precise shot during offensive drills. It was a noticeable change from last year’s camp, when Frederic attended as a tryout player but didn’t make much of an impact. Perhaps Frederic has been invigorated by some brotherly competition; his brother, Trent, was selected by the Boston Bruins in the first round of last month’s draft, while Grant has gone unselected through three years of eligibility.
- Forward Conner Bleackley, who was selected in the first round by the Colorado Avalanche in the 2014 draft, but went unsigned and ended up getting taken by the Blues in the fifth round this year, underwent a rather significant change on Tuesday. Bleackley, who has played mostly center during his junior career, lined up on the wing during the scrimmage, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise considering that the Blues drafted six players listed as centers in this year’s draft. The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder wasn’t really as impressive on Tuesday as you’d expect a former first-rounder to be; though he was productive at times as a scorer, he never really showed off any explosiveness, and he seemed to be skating a step slow while moving up and down the ice.
- 2015 second-rounder Vince Dunn was much improved from last year’s camp, which makes sense for two reasons: first of all, he’s got another year of experience, but in addition, he’s fully healthy this year, whereas he was rebounding from an injury at last year’s camp. Dunn looks much more polished overall, and he appears to have added some bulk to his frame. He should be ready to move up to the AHL if the Blues have a spot open for him this fall.
- Nolan Stevens, one of the Blues’ fifth-round picks last month, was perhaps the most pleasant surprise during Tuesday’s workout. The 6-foot-2, 185-pounder showed off a ton of raw skill, coming loose for a breakaway opportunity that was perhaps the most exciting play of the scrimmage.
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- First-rounder Tage Thompson wasn’t head-and-shoulders better than everybody quite like Robby Fabbri was when he attended prospect camp (and no one should have expected him to be, as he’s considered more of a project). With that said, he did show off some nice skills and make it obvious as to why he was a first-round pick. If he can put on a little bit of weight, Thompson looks like a guy that the Blues can play in front of the net on the power play like they did for the longest time with David Backes.
- 2014 seventh-rounder Dwyer Tschantz is a major longshot to ever do anything in the NHL, considering that he was such a late pick and hasn’t really done anything noteworthy during his two collegiate seasons at Cornell. He sure has an intriguing skill set, though. He’s huge at 6-foot-5 and 221 pounds, and he’s a very good skater for his size. If the Blues can somehow teach Tschantz to put the puck in the net, they’ve got a major steal on their hands.
- Former Blues goalie Fred Brathwaite is on the ice this week, working alongside another former Blues netminder, Ty Conklin (who now serves as the Blues’ goalie development coach), helping to develop all the young goaltenders that are attending the camp. In particular, Brathwaite seemed to be focused on this year’s second-round pick, Evan Fitzpatrick, providing advice to him nearly every time that Fitzpatrick had a moment of down time on the ice.
- Goalie Jeremy Brodeur, son of former Blues player and current assistant GM Martin Brodeur, was scheduled to attend prospect camp on a tryout basis for the second straight year, but he was nowhere to be found on Tuesday, having been replaced by tryout goalie Drew Vogler with no explanation provided by the club. Brodeur attended the Columbus Blue Jackets’ development camp last week, but it’s unclear whether he’s on the verge of a deal with that club.