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San Antonio Rampage
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Only a couple of weeks removed from their first Stanley Cup championship and the greatest hockey celebration in the history of St. Louis, the Blues organization is already back to work.

After adding five players to the organization during last weekend’s NHL Draft, the Blues have brought 32 prospects to St. Louis for the team’s 2019 Prospect Camp. With a mix of brand-new faces and partially polished players, the Blues will use the week to evaluate their cupboard before the summer sets in.

Players hit the ice from Tuesday through Friday, with a scrimmage capping the week on Friday night at Enterprise Center. During that week, potential future Blues will meet with management staff and development coaches, including the San Antonio Rampage coaching staff. Also on hand will be Blues Director of Player Development Tim Taylor, a man who will be among the most important figures in their professional growth.

“The moment they’re drafted is when I take over,” said Taylor, a veteran of over 700 NHL games as a player, now finishing his eighth year with the Blues in his current role. “My job is to build relationships and get them to understand what being a pro is all about.”

Taylor spends significant time each season monitoring players in San Antonio, prospects the Blues hope are closest to making the jump to the NHL. But he also racks up thousands of miles traveling North America to visit draft picks playing hockey in various junior and college programs, making sure they are on the right path to success.

“I’m mentoring them to be an NHL player and ultimately a Stanley Cup champion because that’s what our ultimate goal is for each and every one of these players,” said Taylor, who won his third Stanley Cup this season with the Blues. “My job is to make sure I’m there every day for them, whether it be a phone call or spending a weekend watching them play, interacting with their coaching staff and parents, even their agents. It’s building that relationship where they can trust you.”

“My job is to get the most out of them, to push them and the same time help them, guide them, coddle them, and at the end of the day, make them a Blue.”

This week will be Taylor’s first opportunity to watch several of the newer prospects in person, while he and the rest of the management staff will also keep an eye on some familiar faces during on-ice drills and off-ice testing.

“All it is for our new draft picks is an introduction to the organization and getting to see a little bit of the city and meet our coaching and training staffs,” said Taylor. “For the older players and guys who have been here before, it is to see where they are at, where their workouts are at and how they have improved from last year. It gives us a better understanding of where they’re at in their pro careers and where they need to get to.”

One of those older players isn’t very old at all. Rampage forward Klim Kostin is attending development camp, having just finished his second AHL season since being a first-round draft pick in 2017. Despite celebrating his 20th birthday just a little over a month ago, Kostin will offer a veteran presence in camp.

“He’s still one of the youngest guys who is going to be at this camp,” said Taylor. “He’s a very focused kid and it’s going to be good for other players to see at 20 years old, how young Klim is but also how much further he is in his pro-development than they are.”

Taylor noted that he wants Kostin to relax and enjoy the experience of his third prospect camp, mentioning that Kostin did put pressure on himself to perform as a teenager in the AHL. Yet Taylor was not surprised to see him in St. Louis a week and a half prior to camp, working out to be ready for this week.

In years past, Klim would not have been the only player hard at work in St. Louis. The long playoff run and Stanley Cup celebrations have naturally made for a different schedule for Blues players in late June than in prior summers, but during most development camps the prospects do see NHL regulars in the gym getting ready for next season.

For Taylor, the opportunity to see how the best players in the world prepare themselves is one of the key benefits for prospects at camp.

“It’s a real good baseline for these guys to understand and see what NHL players go through on a daily basis. This is their job, this is their career, this is their life. As a young kid, you have school and your parents and some workouts and other things that surround you. When they come in here and see this, that this is your life and what you’re made to do, they get a grasp of what it takes to get to the next level.”

The prospect camp roster is a mix of Blues draft picks and free agents. While names like Kostin and rookie forward Alexey Toropchenko may jump off the page for Blues fans this time around, there are plenty more that will fly under the radar. Some of those unassuming youngsters will make a big impact down the road.

“At the end of the day, every kid just wants to prove himself. No matter when you’re drafted, or if you’re signed in free agency, you’re always on a tryout and you’re always there to impress. Our job at the end of the day isn’t to evaluate one more than the other but to evaluate them all equally. We want to mold them into another championship team here.”

“It doesn’t matter where you’re picked or if you haven’t been picked, this is the time to come in and impress the coaching staff and get your pro career started. There’s still a huge amount of work for every one of these guys, but at the same time there are going to be some future Blues on the ice at this development camp.”

Some are also future Rampage players, and several of this year’s Stanley Cup champions polished their games in San Antonio.

“You never know how much of a role they’re going to play,” said Taylor. “Four years past [since his draft] and we saw Sammy Blais, and three years past that we saw Jordan Binnginton. [The Blues] didn’t know these guys were going to play, but in the Stanley Cup Final they played prominent roles in key situations to help us win a championship.”

Not all of camp will be spent on the ice or in the gym. Players took batting practice with the St. Louis Cardinals and took in a baseball game on Monday. The rest of the week will include other fun team-building exercises and a chance to enjoy the city that General Manager Doug Armstrong hopes most will one day call home.

Players will visit with Bobby Gassoff Jr., a Navy SEAL, and son of a Blues player whose number hangs in the rafters at Enterprise Center. Gassoff Jr. relates the challenges and triumphs of his military career to young players hoping to achieve their own life goals.

The week ends with a game at Enterprise Center that the Blues hope will draw 10,000 fans, what Taylor cleverly says is ‘putting a carrot in front of the players’ and giving them a small taste of what could one day be theirs if they put in the work.

St. Louis hockey fans likely won’t finish celebrating their first Stanley Cup until the puck drops on October 2nd to open a new season. The Blues aren’t done celebrating either, but the physically and mentally and from every level of the organization, the groundwork for the next Cup run is already underway.

“Absolutely we’re excited,” said Taylor. “We’re still obviously going through a bit of celebration, but this is turning the corner and a new page. We’re ready for next year and these kids are our future.”