TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — The Blues came to this northern Michigan vacation spot with the youngest goalie tandem among the eight teams at the NHL Prospect Tournament.
There were only a handful of teen-age goalies here, and the Blues had two of them in Joel Hofer, 19, and Colten Ellis, 18.
Among the seven defensemen on the Blues’ roster, only one of them — Tyler Tucker — is an NHL draft pick. True, prospects captain Mitch Reinke was signed as a college free agent and has a full season of minor league hockey under his belt. But the other five Blues D-men here were free-agent invites hoping to impress.
So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Blues allowed the most goals in the tournament — 20 — and won only once. A 5-3 loss Tuesday to the New York Rangers in the fifth-place game at Centre Ice Arena left the Blues with a 1-3 record for their five-day stay on shores of Lake Michigan.
“It’s a big difference when you have an 18-year-old goaltender going up against a 25-year-old goaltender,” Blues prospects coach Drew Bannister said. “And that’s probably the biggest difference we’re kind of seeing.”
Against the Rangers, Ellis had a 22-year-old counterpart (Adam Huska) in the opposing net. Earlier in the tournament, the Blues’ faced 24-year-old goalies against both the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. The age gap was close only in the Blues’ tournament opener, when they faced 20-year-old Toronto goalie Ian Scott.
Bannister, whose full-time job is coaching the Blues’ American Hockey League affiliate in San Antonio, believes Hofer and Ellis will be better for the experience.
“I think it’s a good eye-opener for them to see the difference between the shooters they face in junior compared to the shooters that are here,” Bannister said.
Both Hofer and Ellis are among a whopping seven goalies that will be on hand for Blues training camp that starts this week in St. Louis.
“It’s just all about experience,” Ellis said. “And for me right now, I was happy with all the experiences I got this week.
“It’s so quick. For me, reading the play is an asset. But I think at times I kind of struggled with it, with the faster-pace play. So I think that’s something that going back to junior I’ve really got be keen on and make sure I’m one step ahead of the play at all times.”
After his Blues’ training camp stint this month, Ellis will return to Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League; Hofer will return to Portland of the Western Hockey League.
For a variety of reasons, the Blues didn’t have all of their best prospects here. For example, For example, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said that goalie Evan Fitzpatrick has “done his tour of duty” in past prospect tournaments.
Same with prized defenseman Niko Mikkola, who played for Finland’s gold medal team in the World Championship — which extended his season until the end of May.
“We just felt he was past this tournament,” Armstrong said. “He didn’t need it to prepare for our camp.”
Dominik Bokk, the Blues’ first-round pick in the 2018 draft, stayed overseas because his Swedish Hockey League team — Rogle BK — has begun its season. Bokk won’t attend Blues training camp, either, this year; Armstrong said the Blues want him to maximize his time in Sweden.
“We just didn’t want to disrupt (his season) knowing he was gonna go back there,” Armstrong said. “When you’re a young player, you’re always trying to find ice time. When you’re out of sight, (you’re) out of mind. For his club team we want him to be at the forefront.
“And if he leaves for 10 days or two weeks, you lose your slot (in Sweden) and you gotta go back and gain it. He worked hard all summer, so we were understanding that next year he’ll be here and be ready to play in North America.”
Additionally, draft picks Scott Perunovich and Hugh McGing are back in school in the U.S. preparing for their college seasons.
As for the top Blues prospects that were on hand in Traverse City, they all played to form. Forwards Klim Kostin and Alexey Toropchenko had two goals apiece in the tournament and both scored Tuesday as the Blues nearly battled back from a 4-0 deficit.
A goal by Mathias Laferriere (sixth round, 2018) early in the third period made it a 4-3 game, but that’s as close as the Blues got.
“Toropchenko’s been really good,” Bannister said. “He’s taken another step since last year. If he’s with us in San Antonio this year, I think he’s gonna be a big part of our team.”
Reinke had a modest two assists for the tournament but was effective.
“He did kind of what you expect,” Bannister said. “Be quietly very efficient and move pucks and defend well.”
Kostin was the Blues’ best player Tuesday, with numerous scoring chances beyond his second-period goal.
“He’s a very determined player,” Reinke said. “He’s got a ton of skill, a ton of talent, and he uses his size a lot.”
A few free agent invites caught Bannister’s attention, among them defenseman River Rymsha, and forwards Kevin Hancock, Krystof Hrabik and Mitchell Balmas.
“Overall we were happy with 99 percent of the guys that came here,” Bannister said. “They worked hard every day and competed hard in the games.
“Take away the first two games and the penalties we took, we might be in a different situation. But I thought overall, 5-on-5 the kids played really hard and played well.”