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Prospecting for Blues

Blues prospect Klim Kostin, right, interacts with a teammate between drills on Tuesday, June 25, 2019 at the Blues Prospect Camp in the Enterprise Center. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com

There will be Blues hockey played Friday in Michigan. OK, Blues “prospects” hockey. Nonetheless, the organization’s annual trek to Traverse City for the NHL Prospect Tournament signals the beginning of another season.

The Blues’ “varsity” starts camp next week. The first preseason game is Sept. 16 and ready or not, the regular season begins in less than a month, Oct. 2 against the Washington Capitals at Enterprise Center.

As for this weekend, many - but not all - of the Blues’ top prospects take on their counterparts from seven other NHL teams.

The Blues are competing in the Gordie Howe Division with the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs. They open against the Toronto prospects Friday at 5:30 p.m. (Central), face Detroit on Saturday at 2:30 p.m., and close out division play Monday at 4:30 p.m. against Chicago.

(Sunday is an off day.)

Toronto is new to Traverse City this year, having replaced Carolina.

The Blues’ prospects conclude tournament play Tuesday with a crossover game against a team from the Ted Lindsay Division, which includes the Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers. The time and opponent for Tuesday’s game depends on how the Blues finish in their division.

The seventh-place game starts at 11 a.m. Tuesday on one of the two rinks at Centre Ice Arena in Traverse City. The fifth-place game starts at 11:30 a.m., the third place game is at 2:30 p.m., and the championship game starts at 4 p.m.

Columbus won last year’s tournament, and has won three of the past five championships in Traverse City.

This is the 21st year of the tournament, and the Blues have won it four times - but not since 2004. Before that, they won three titles in a row from 1999 through 2001.

The Blues took a highly-regarded roster to Traverse City last year, one that included forwards Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou and Klim Kostin, as well as goalie Evan Fitzpatrick.

At the time, Thomas was the reigning playoff MVP in the Ontario Hockey League; Kryou was the reigning regular-season MVP in the OHL; Kostin had come off a season in the American Hockey League with San Antonio; and Fitzpatrick had led Acadie-Bathurst to the Memorial Cup championship - a tournament that features the playoff champions of the top three junior hockey leagues in North America.

Despite those credentials, that group struggled in Traverse City, going 1-2-1 in the tournament and finishing in seventh place. An 8-4 victory over the New York Rangers in the seventh-place game marked their only win.

Kyrou scored a hat trick in that contest, tying for the overall tournament lead with five goals. He rode that momentum into Blues camp and earned a spot on the team’s opening-day roster although he was ultimately sent down to San Antonio on Oct. 29.

The Blues entered that tournament rated as having the No. 3 prospects group in the NHL by The Athletic and No. 5 by The Sporting News. So the Traverse City results were disappointing.

“Sometimes when you have a lot of expectations it plays with your head a little bit,” Fitzpatrick said after the seventh-place game. “I’m really proud of the effort we put in (against the Rangers). We showed that our prospect system as a whole is a lot better than what people may think right now.”

To a large degree, this year’s team arrives in Traverse City without the press clippings of its immediate predecessor. Past prospects such as Thomas, Sammy Blais and Jordan Binnington “graduated” to the big club where they helped the Blues win a Stanley Cup.

And the Blues don’t have a first-round pick to bolster their Traverse City roster from this year’s draft, sending it to Buffalo as part of the Ryan O’Reilly trade.

As a result, the Blues’ are ranked only 20th by The Sporting News in this year’s prospects rankings, No. 19 by The Athletic and No. 23 by Elite Prospects.

Dominik Bokk, the Blues’ most recent first-round pick (2018), will not be in Traverse City as he concentrates on his upcoming season for Rogle BK in the Swedish Hockey League.

Kyrou, who’s coming off kneecap surgery and already has played in three Traverse City tournaments, won’t be attending, either. Nor will promising defenseman Niko Mikkola, who was impressive in Blues camp last September before spending the season with San Antonio. He then was one of the top performers for Finland’s gold medal-winning team at the World Championships in May.

But Kostin is back for his third go-around in Traverse City. The roster also includes forward Nikita Alexandrov, the Blues’ highest pick in this year’s draft (Round 2, No. 62 overall). Another player to keep an eye on is forward Alexey Torpchenko, a fourth-round pick in 2017 who starred in the junior hockey playoffs this spring for the Guelph Storm of the OHL with 13 goals in 24 games.

Defensemen Mitch Reinke and Tyler Tucker also bear watching. Reinke was signed as a college free agent during the 2017-18 NHL season and had a productive AHL season in San Antonio with 12 goals and 33 assists. Tucker was a seventh-round draft pick in 2018 and showed surprising scoring prowess for the Barrie Colts of the OHL last season with 14 goals and 45 assists.

All told, the Blues’ 24-man roster in Traverse City includes 12 Blues draft picks and 14 players who took part in the team’s post-draft development camp at Enterprise Center at the end of June.

The competition should be stiff in Michigan. The Chicago prospects roster, for example, features a first-round pick from each of the Blackhawks’ past three drafts: center Kirby Dach (2019), defenseman Adam Boqvist (2018) and defenseman Nicolas Beaudin (2017).

Forward Kaapa Kakko, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 draft, is on the New York Rangers’ roster for Traverse City.


Quick Hits: Thomas on the Blues

Jim Thomas covers Blues hockey for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.