Berube, Armstrong Discuss Rising Prospects with RampageSep 13, 2019
Berube, Armstrong Discuss Rising Prospects with Rampage
Coaches and executives from eight NHL teams took over Traverse City, Michigan for the NHL Prospects Tournament this past week, watching some of their top young talent go head-to-head for five days. While a few of the fledgling stars will crack NHL lineups this fall, many will head back to junior hockey and plenty will head off to join AHL clubs in October. Sitting with the St. Louis Blues contingency were General Manager Doug Armstrong and Head Coach Craig Berube, two men who know well what young and developing players are capable of accomplishing over the course of a season.
Fresh off their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, the Blues brass is hard at work aiming for its second. Last June’s historic run featured plenty of star-power from the likes of Tarasenko, Schenn, and Pietrangelo. Yet the parade path was also paved by several players who began the year and spent substantial time playing in the AHL with the San Antonio Rampage.
Jordan Binnington and Sammy Blais’ contributions are well-documented, with Binnington’s record-setting rookie year earning him NHL All-Rookie honors and Blais adding a physical edge in 15 playoff games. They were hardly alone, with Zach Sanford and Mackenzie MacEachern also spending periods of time in San Antonio before making an impact in St. Louis.
In the first year of their affiliation agreement, the players who made the trek from San Antonio to St. Louis were ready for the call.
“I thought they were outstanding. When the players came up, they were ready to play,” said Armstrong of the Rampage. “We got off to a really tough start down there, but after that I thought we played some really good hockey.”
Armstrong mentioned the 17-game home unbeaten streak as a valuable experience for the Blues prospects, who needed to learn from both the highs and the lows during their time in the minor leagues.
“I think every day you have the ability to get better and to learn, and I think that’s what guys are learning when they get down there,” said Armstrong. “Ultimately, you want to get to the NHL as quickly as possible, but it is a process. To pick up those important tools and learn how to play when you’re not at 100 percent and practice when you’re not at 100 percent, that’s very important.”
Several players who hope to get a call in the future were members of the Traverse City roster. Defenseman Mitch Reinke was a ‘Black Ace’ during the Stanley Cup run after a record-breaking rookie season in San Antonio, and he served as the captain during the tournament. Forwards Nolan Stevens and Austin Poganski both wore an ‘A’ on their jerseys, with all three players making their second appearance at the tournament.
Klim Kostin and rookie Alexei Toropchenko were in Traverse City for their third go-arounds. Former teammates in Russia, the duo may both find themselves together again in San Antonio this season. Toropchenko, who scored two goals in the tournament, hopes to carry the momentum over from an explosive post-season with OHL Guelph. Kostin, already slated for his third pro season at age 20, will look to take his next step towards an NHL role.
“We forget how young this kid is. He was one of the exceptions that he could play in the AHL without being the young age because of his European status and things like that. He’s a young kid and he’s improved every year,” said Berube of Kostin.
“He’s a big guy that can skate. He’s a physical player and he likes that side of things. It’s about the little things away from the puck, your work ethic without the puck and managing the puck. It’s figuring out what type of player he needs to be, because I think he’s still in between what type of player he wants to be and needs to be.”
Armstrong noted that in terms of his age, Kostin will be in a stage of his game similar to where Jordan Kyrou was last year. Kyrou was an AHL All-Star last season but suffered an injury late in the year that cut his season short. As he gets set for his second pro season, the coaching staff knows he isn’t far off from being a full-time Blue.
“He’s a dynamic player, almost a point a game in the American Hockey League which is not easy to do. He’s got great offensive abilities,” said Berube. “His hockey sense and work ethic away from the puck need to improve a little bit, but he’s a young kid and they’re all like that. That will come in time.”
With a vast majority of the Cup-winning team returning this season, many of the roster spots may be spoken for as last year’s Rampage staples try to make the jump. Armstrong mentioned Reinke as a player he was interested to see compete in camp, but there was another member of the San Antonio blue line that also has the organization’s attention.
Niko Mikkola ‘opened some eyes’ last spring at the World Championships, according to Armstrong, where he won a gold medal with Finland and was among their go-to defenders in a tournament that featured a myriad of NHL talent.
“When you’re playing at that tournament, you’re playing against the best players who aren’t in the playoffs. And the tournament gains more and more players as [NHL playoff] teams get eliminated,” said Armstrong. “I thought he played very well there against that group. He went the year before but didn’t play a lot. This year he went there and was an impact player for them. That’s usually a good sign that they’re ready for the next level.”
With the week in Traverse City coming to a close, the season is underway and main camp is imminent. For the Blues’ professional participants in the tournament, there were no jobs won or lost playing against recent draft picks and other players seeing their first game-action in several months. Instead there was the chance to get reacclimated to the ice and get the skating legs moving.
As the scene shifts to St. Louis, these players will get the chance to make their case to, at some point, do what Rampage teammates like Binnington and Blais have done before them.
“They’re going to get some exhibition games and that’s where they’re going to have to really show their compete, their work ethic, their hockey sense and things like that that we’ll be looking for. We’ll be seeing if they’re ready yet or if they need to go down and get some more work,” said Berube.
“They’re going to get a good opportunity. We have eight exhibition games, so they’re going to get some games and we’ll see what they can do.”