September 1998 will go down in Blues annals as one of change with an optimistic eye toward the future. This camp was the first one in more than 10 years in which Brett Hull was not present. Also missing from last year’s roster were defenceman Steve Duchesne and forwards Blair Atcheynum and Darren Turcotte.
The Blues made no major trades over the summer and the training camp would provide an opportunity for some of the Blues’ new young talent to step to the forefront.
The major holes the Blues were looking to fill were a #2 center, which would enable Pavol Demitra to move to wing, a checking line RW to replace Blair Atcheynum, provided Scott Young was playing on one of the top two lines, and a scoring line LW, where the Blues have little depth. The Blues have good depth on defence and appear to be set in goal with Grant Fuhr and Jamie McLennan.
It was widely assumed by many that the prime candidate to emerge from the Blues prospects would be center Michal Handzus. And while Handzus had a good camp and came on in the exhibition games, the spotlight was stolen by Marty Reasoner. Reasoner made a serious bid to open the season on the Blues #2 line with his inspired play and offensive skills. If the knock on Reasoner in the past has been that he was too often uninvolved in the play, thus far Reasoner has done all he can to dispell that. Reasoner has done a good job on defensive play and he has initiated play on offence rather than trying to simply read and react. His anticipation and instinct for offence are top-notch, just a shade below Pierre Turgeon’s.
He posesses a nasty wrist shot and has a quick release on it. Reasoner’s game can get better and it will, he needs only experience to become a top NHL center.
Michal Handzus, on the other hand, started slowly and only gradually picked up his offensive game. Like a lot of big men not named Mario Lemieux, Handzus looks slower than he really is, ponderously at times. Handzus is more of a two-way player than Reasoner and his skills right now would be well-suited to third line play.
Handzus does have good hands and at 6’5″ and obviously a good reach. At times Handzus seems to be coasting, he has to keep his skates moving and stay with the play. These things come with experience and Handzus stands a good chance of being the #3 center when the Blues start the season. On the wing, the Blues were pleasantly surprised by the play of Lubos Bartecko and Jochen Hecht had a great camp, justifying his high selection in the 1995 draft. Bartecko is a sniper with fair skating ability and a good shot. He doesn’t do any one thing with brilliance, but he does possess a goal scorer’s touch. Bartecko needs lots of ice time, and with the Blues free to use Craig Conroy and Pavol Demitra on the wing, Bartecko’s ice time would be cut in St. Louis. Jochen Hecht had a strong camp and made a bid to start the season in St.Louis. Hecht possesses great speed and a good shot, although he is not a goal scorer per say at this time. What he does have is a chippy style of play that is reminiscent of Geoff Courtnall. He is an agitator and he will take the hit to make the play. His speed fits in nicely with the Blues new emphasis on speed and mobility. Hecht will get top two lines play with Worcester and stands a chance of seeing time in St. Louis before the season ends.
Of the other forward prospects, Daniel Corso, Derek Bekar, and Reed Low are worthy of mention. Corso is better geared for center than the wing and he may get a chance to be #1 at Worcester. He is a pesky type of small center who has great skills, both play-making and as a sniper.
Derek Bekar was an early surprise who needs a lot of ice time as well, and at Worcester he will get it. Bekar can play both center and LW, which gives him the versatility that the Blues covet in their forwards.
Reed Low is simply a punishing hitter and good fighter. He does have better skating ability than Tony Twist but he needs experience and the role he will fill is one of the toughest and most unforgiving in hockey. He has a good chance though.
On defence the name was Jan Horacek. Horacek was simply great, perhaps better at defence than Reasoner was at center. Horacek will probably return to major junior or the Czech league, but he is a top-four defenceman in the making. His offence will pick up with experience but for now he play a solid defence game and makes consistently good judgements with the puck. For a big man he has good skating ability and he plays a physical game with his speed, which makes him a punishing hitter.
Of the rest of the Blues prospects, look for Andrej Podkonicky, Libor Zabransky, and Bryce Salvador to get lots of time at Worcester, and they will fit into the Blues plans in the future as they progress.
For veteran prospects Chris Kenady, Rory Fitzpatrick and Jamal Mayers camp was a mixede blessing. Kenady and Fitzpatrick were both exposed in the waiver draft and Fitzpatrick was snapped up by Boston, ending his short and unsuccessful run with the Note. Kenady simply does not have the skating skill to fit in with the Blues up-tempo style and although he may have a NHL future, it probably won’t be in St. Louis. Jamal Mayers does have good speed and he had a real shot before being diagnosed with a wrist fracture, a big let down for the hard-working Mayers, who reported to camp in great shape.
Brent Johnson will retain his title as Blues goalie of the future as he should get the lion’s share of time at Worcester. He will be backed up by Rich Parent, who had an undistinguished camp.