How St. Louis has turned into a youth hockey hotbed full of top prospects

Matthew Tkachuk. (Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

You can’t always get the narrative you want. The St. Louis Blues spearheaded an effort to get their city the world juniors in 2018, but fell in the final round to Buffalo, which has quickly become a hub for big events in the hockey world thanks to Sabres owner Terry Pegula’s building spree.

The Sabres will again do an excellent job with the WJC, just as they did in 2011. But when you consider how good grassroots hockey has become in St. Louis, it’s too bad the U.S. doesn’t have another event for the Gateway Arch city.

Take a look at this year’s draft rankings and you’ll find Missouri flavor. Matthew Tkachuk leads the way as a top-five prospect, while fellow first-round hopefuls Logan Brown, Clayton Keller and Luke Kunin, plus potential second-rounder Trent Frederic, all hail from the area. Drafted natives include goalie Luke Opilka (St. Louis) and Ryan MacInnis (Arizona), both of whom play for the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers. Simply put, it’s getting hot in there.

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Prospect Need to Know: Sebastian Aho is soaring to the top

Sebastian Aho (Photo by Karpat Oulu/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)

The NHL trade deadline had plenty of ramifications in the prospect world, with a slew of draft selections going to new teams and some actual players changing organizations as well. One situation to keep an eye on? Conner Bleackley, now of Arizona. The Colorado first-rounder would net the Coyotes a compensatory second-round pick if he doesn’t sign with his new team and based on his fractured kneecap and uneven career to date, that could be a real possibility.

 

Here’s a look at some of the other prospects you should know about right now:

 

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Happy birthday, Miracle on Ice: you changed everything

Steve Christoff and captain Mike Eruzione hop over the boards  (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images)

I’ve been to the arena in Lake Placid where it all went down. You can feel the vibe, see where the ghosts might hang out on weekdays. But to modern eyes, it’s incredible how small everything appears. Peer out the window and you can see where the opening ceremonies were held – it had to be closer to a high school graduation than the Beijing overdose at the 2008 Summer Games – and the concessions are spartan, as if that really ever matters.

But that’s why the Miracle on Ice was special, wasn’t it? The Americans were the little guys, taking on the Big, Red, Soviet Machine. The Yankees weren’t supposed to hang with Viktor Tikhonov’s army, but they did. And 36 years ago today, the final score was 4-3 for the locals.

How far has hockey in America come since that victory? Light years.

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The Big Easy: Eric Lindros is healthy and happy after blazing a trail for player safety

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It’s a bright fall day on a tree-lined street in one of Toronto’s most exclusive neighborhoods, but the rich and/or famous are nowhere to be seen. Things are pleasantly quiet on this Thursday morning in mid-November. It’s no more than a mile or so north of the bedlam that is downtown, but here, amid a mass of bright yellow leaves, there is nothing but calm and serenity.

On one of the houses, there’s a makeshift sign from a torn cardboard box posted on the front door that reads in black magic marker ink: “Dear Guest: Please refrain from knocking at this time. Thank you.”

The door opens and a mountain of a man stands in the doorway. His hands look as though they could still swallow you whole, then crumple you up and throw you away like a piece of scrap paper. He’s unshaven and graying at the temples, wearing blue sweat pants and a T-shirt with a Batman logo on the chest.

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Prospect Need to Know: Meet Sweden’s top 2016 NHL draft hopeful

Rasmus Asplund  (Photo by Markku Ulander/AFP/Getty Images)

The CHL Top Prospects Game runs this Thursday in Vancouver and it will be a strange year for the showdown. To begin with, three of the top four prospects in the NHL draft aren’t even eligible to participate – Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi all play in Europe. On top of that, hometown hero Tyler Benson of the WHL’s Vancouver Giants will miss the contest due to a lingering injury, so his captaincy of Team Cherry has been ceded to top defenseman Jakob Chychrun instead. The other bad news out west is that Red Deer center Conner Bleackley (Colorado) will miss six weeks with a fractured kneecap. The Rebels host the Memorial Cup, so at least his season’s not finished. Let’s get to the rest of the prospect world:

 

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Top 30 draft rankings for 2016: Laine and Puljujarvi ride golden wave

Patrik Laine (#29) and Jesse Puljujarvi (photo by Heikki Saukkomaa/AFP/Getty Images)

The world juniors in Finland were almost unprecedented in terms of draft influence. Four of the six tournament all-stars (as chosen by the media) were 2016 prospects: Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Olli Juolevi and overall MVP Jesse Puljujarvi. The kids aren’t supposed to dominate like that, but here we are. With Alexander Nylander and Matthew Tkachuk also having strong tournaments, the big question around the campfire right now is where to slot defenseman Jakob Chychrun.

The OHL Sarnia star did not make Team Canada, but he’s the only defenseman in the top echelon right now – though Juolevi is seriously threatening that. One exec I spoke with believes Chychrun is in a positional class by himself, while another team scout told me Juolevi is pushing his way into the conversation.

So what happens on draft day? Top D-men are hard to find, but those elite forwards are awfully tempting. Since we’re nowhere near knowing which teams will be selecting early, I’m keeping things conservative, as I generally do. Here’s a look at my current top-30:

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Prospect Need to Know: Sabres pick Will Borgen proud of his Spud roots

Will Borgen (photo courtesy of St. Cloud State)

I’m back from Finland and things are not slowing down. The home team took gold at the world juniors in one of the best games I’ve ever seen live and the talent overall was incredible in Helsinki. But a whole slew of trades have gone down in the CHL since we last gathered, while the USHL Top Prospects Game runs tonight in Omaha. Names to watch in Nebraska include Cam Morrison (Notre Dame commit), William Knierim (Miami) and Matt Filipe (Northeastern). As for everything else prospect, let’s get to the list.

 

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