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Future stars? Blues prospects Hofer, Alexandrov shine at World Juniors

Future stars? Blues prospects Hofer, Alexandrov shine at World Juniors

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Czech Republic U20 Hockey Worlds

Russia's Vasili Podkolzin, left, fails to score past Canada's goaltender Joel Hofer, right, during the U20 Ice Hockey Worlds gold medal match between Canada and Russia in Ostrava, Czech Republic, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

Not that long ago, neither Joel Hofer nor Nikita Alexandrov were on the radar of their country’s national junior team.

Yet there they were, playing central roles in the World Junior Championship earlier this month in the Czech Republic. Hofer, a goalie, came off the bench to lead Team Canada to the gold medal. Alexandrov, a forward, played a prominent role for silver-medalist Russia.

“And you like to see that,” said Bill Armstrong, the Blues’ assistant general manager and director of amateur scouting. “That’s a very good sign for us.”

Hofer was taken in the fourth round, No. 107 overall in the 2018 draft, about a week before the Blues went wild on the first day of free agency — trading for Ryan O’Reilly and signing David Perron and Tyler Bozak.

Alexandrov was the Blues’ first pick in the 2019 draft last June, albeit with the last pick of the second round, No. 62 overall. At the time, the Blues were basking in the afterglow of their Stanley Cup Final victory over the Boston Bruins less than two weeks earlier.

So their arrival may have seemed like an afterthought, but both 19-year-olds have since wedged their way into the Blues’ consciousness.

Hofer, who was born in Winnipeg, didn’t even get invited to one of the tryout camps for the Team Canada junior team last spring and summer.

“There were 14 goaltenders that were invited I believe to camp at one point in Canada and he wasn’t one of the 14,” Armstrong said.

But after participating for the Blues’ team at the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich., in early September, the Blues encouraged him to do whatever he could to make the junior national team.

“That should be your goal, to be one of the top goaltenders in junior hockey in Canada,” Armstrong said.

Thanks to a stellar start to his junior season for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League, and an impressive showing in the Canada vs. Russia junior series in November, Hofer earned a spot on Team Canada.

“And then when he got his opportunity (at the World Juniors) he seized the net and just ran with it,” said Armstrong, no relation to Blues GM Doug Armstrong.

After sitting out the first game of pool play, Hofer replaced starter Nicolas Daws in goal after Russia took a 4-0 lead early in the second period of Game 2. As fate would have it, a goal by Alexandrov — to make it 4-0 Russia — chased Daws and got fellow Blues prospect Hofer into the net.

He never left. Hofer went 5-0-0, posting the best goals-against average (1.60) and best save percentage (.939) at the World Juniors. Not surprisingly, he was named the tournament’s best goaltender and made the tournament all-star team.

In the title game, Alexandrov scored against his Blues “teammate” to open the scoring, but Hofer stopped 35 of 38 shots overall to help Canada to a 4-3 win and the championship.

Being the starting goalie at any level for Team Canada is a big deal, and Hofer thrived in that spotlight at the World Juniors.

“What people don’t understand about that, too, is that the whole country of Canada is watching,” Armstrong said. “It’s a big thing in Canada so I think all the kids know that. It’s a good stage to be on. There’s a lot of pressure.

“Robert Thomas played in it, Jordan Kyrou played in it. Klim Kostin played for Russia. So it’s really a good chance to see where your prospect is at compared to the other prospects in the world.”

Since the tournament ended Jan. 5, Hofer returned to the Winterhawks and is 4-0-1. For the season, he’s 24-4-2 with a 2.03 GAA and a .932 save percentage. He’s second in both goals-against and save percentage in the 22-team WHL, and is tied for first in wins.

“His size, that’s the first thing you notice,” Armstrong said. “He covers a lot of the net. The second thing you’re gonna note about him is he’s a goalie’s goalie. . . . He really has a good awareness of where the puck’s going and who it’s going to. He’s got a very high IQ as a goaltender.”

Another thing you notice is that at 6-5, 172 pounds, he’s just as skinny as Blues star Jordan Binnington.

When asked if Hofer needed to put on some weight, Armstrong laughed and said: “Well, ‘Binny’ never did. And he’s OK. I think we’re past the point of putting weight on our goaltenders.”

As for Alexandrov, he finished the World Juniors with two goals and six assists for Russia, with at least one point in all seven tournament games. His eight points tied for second on the team. Alexandrov played on Russia’s second line, and as the tournament progressed he began seeing power play duty as well.

“He worked his way on (that team),” Armstrong said. “I gotta be honest with you, he wasn’t a natural fit for that team because he hadn’t played for their national team growing up. So he had to earn his stripes and he really got a ton of playing time. That coach really liked him.”

Although of Russian descent, Alexandrov was born and raised in Germany, so he really wasn’t around the Russian hockey scene growing up.

“He is a (Tyler) Bozak,” Armstrong said, referring to the veteran Blues forward. “That’s who he is. He makes subtle plays that make people better around him. Every time he touches the puck, he puts the puck in the right place at the right time. And he’s always in the right place at the right time.”

Since returning to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he plays for the Charlottetown Islanders, Alexandrov has one goal and four assists in five games. For the season he has 15 goals and 13 assists in 24 games.

“He’s a quality kid; he really is,” Armstrong said. “We’re really impressed. He’s gonna turn pro (as is Hofer) after this year. So we got both him and Hofer coming in next year which is really huge for our organization.”

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