Blues Off to Rocky Start in Traverse City

The annual Traverse City Prospect Tournament is in full swing in northern Michigan, but no one seems to have told the St. Louis Blues. The prospects representing the Blues’ organization have struggled mightily out of the gate, losing both of their first two games.

What’s causing the Blues’ struggles? And what positive takeaways remain for Blues fans looking to the future of the defending Stanley Cup champions?

Penalty Kill Woes

The Blues’ youngsters have played two games so far, against prospects from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday and against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday. In both games, the opposition brutalized the Blues on the power play. Often, the culprit for those penalties was 2019 fifth-round pick Keean Washkurak, who committed a double minor in both contests.

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Washkurak is known as a gritty player, and OHL coaches named him the hardest worker in the league in a poll last season. But in Traverse City, that aggression cost him with eight penalty minutes between double minors for roughing and high-sticking.

All told, the Blues committed 15 penalties, and opponents scored on seven of them. Red Wings’ 2018 first-round pick Joe Veleno scored back-to-back power play goals on Saturday, just 40 seconds apart. On Friday, the Maple Leafs took a 3-2 lead to a 6-3 lead by scoring three consecutive power-play goals just under three minutes apart in the second period.

Joe Veleno Drummondville Voltigeurs
Red Wings prospect Joe Veleno menaced the Blues with consecutive power play goals on Saturday in Traverse City (Shawn Davidson/QMJHL)

The St. Louis goaltenders were overworked but didn’t look especially good, either. Joel Hofer, whom the Blues drafted in the fourth round in 2018, let in several soft goals before the coaches pulled him on Friday. Colten Ellis took over, and shutout opponents for 55:19 across two games, but then began to collapse after Ryan Kuffner scored a power play goal off a clever assist from Red Wings first-round pick Moritz Seider.

There wasn’t a lot to like in the result from the game, but what positive takeaways can the Blues find in the rubble? One player in particular, 2017 fourth-round pick Alexei Toropchenko, has excelled so far in the tournament.

Toropchenko Shines

The Blues may have found a late-round draft steal in the Russian Toropchenko. In the first game, he scored a goal and was a plus-one on three shots. The goal was impressive, as he drove hard to the net and buried the puck in the roof before crashing to the ice. In game two he continued to stand out, despite not scoring. He was a minus-1, but took two shots and played well overall.

Toropchenko began to break out in earnest during the OHL playoffs this past season. Playing for the Guelph Storm, he scored 13 goals to go along with six assists in 24 games. In the regular season, he collected 43 points in 62 games.

He has been the best of the Blues’ prospects so far, though defensive prospect Mitch Reinke has also looked good in bursts. Toropchenko stands out for his size (the program lists him as 6-foot-3, 201 pounds), skating speed, physicality, and finesse. Though he is just a fourth-round pick, he has all the tools to succeed at the next level if the Blues give him an opportunity.

The Rest of the Schedule

Sunday is an off day from games at the Traverse City Prospect Tournament. Teams will practice in the morning (the Blues start early at 9:30), but there will be no games. It will be an opportunity for Drew Bannister, the head coach of the Blues’ AHL affiliate the San Antonio Rampage, who is serving as the prospects’ coach, to collect his team and encourage them going forward.

OHL, Drew Bannister, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Drew Bannister, head coach of the San Antonio Rampage, is coaching the Blues’ Traverse City prospects team for the second year in a row (Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

Then, the Blues will resume playing against their rival Chicago Blackhawks at 5:30 on Monday (fans can watch that game on the Blues’ website.) The result of that game will determine whether they play in the fifth or seventh-place game on Tuesday, the final day of the tournament.

The Traverse City Prospect Tournament isn’t just about winning. It’s also the best chance for Blues scouts, coaches, and management to evaluate their future stars all in one place in a competitive environment. The Blues’ prospects will be looking to turn things around and impress the brass starting Monday evening against the Blackhawks.