In the past, in his role as director of player development for the Blues, Tim Taylor liked to change the activities of the team’s annual development camp so that players who attended multiple camps could do different things.
This time he didn’t bother. He just pulled the 2019 schedule because that was the last time the Blues could have development camp.
The annual summer gathering of Blues draft picks and free agent college players and local kids still playing college hockey ended Thursday after a two-year hiatus due to COVID. Thirty-two players were in camp, including all but three of the team’s draft picks (all European) over the past three years.
“It’s refreshing,” said Taylor, who earned a mid-camp promotion to director of player personnel but retains player development responsibilities. “It really is. The guys we drafted a few years ago, it’s their first time here. … I think (goalkeeper) Colten Ellis would have been the only guy to have lived through 2019. Other than that, everyone is new to this. So it was fun.
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Fun for players too, who get an intensive dose of hockey during the day and become kids at night. One night they went to a Cardinals game, another night they went go-karting. Wednesday was paintball. (“That’s all they’re talking about today,” Taylor said. “They’ve got marks all over the place.”)
Most of the players who were on the ice this week at Centene Community Ice Center will never make it to the NHL, but some of the franchise’s most prized products were among those in town, starting with Jake Neighbors (who once played in the NHL), Zachary Bolduc and Jimmy Snuggerud to name three first-round picks. The camp was more educational than analytical, exposing young people to a professional hockey atmosphere, in some cases for the first time. (If there was a default condition in camp, it was that everyone had to get bigger and stronger.)
Which isn’t to say the practices haven’t been observed, but with scrums being played four-on-four and three-on-three, they’re not necessarily indicative. The entire front office of the team watched the first two days of camp before free agency absorbed most of their attention, but things were noticed. And the team will be looking for players to complete its roster for the annual Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Michigan, just before the start of real training camp, so it never hurts to make a good impression.
“You can see guys like Snuggerud,” Taylor said. “You can see his hands, his quick shot. Free agent (Anton) Malmstrom was really good. His feet have really improved. We went to see him at Bowling Green, his feet really improved. I was impressed with all the guys.
“Some of these guys just came off the ice, three weeks ago, two weeks ago, a week ago. My thing is, I don’t want anyone getting ready for this camp. If you haven’t skated in two months, say you’re on a team that didn’t make the playoffs. I don’t want them to slip. I want them to take days off and do their job and then come here and lace up their skates and get the skills right, but at the end of the day, that’s really the nutrition education, powerlifting education and strength training, education of what it’s like to be a pro and ultimately really see what this organization is all about.
One player absent from development camp was defender Leo Loof, one of the team’s 2020 third-round picks. He is from Sweden and played in Finland and was unable to travel due to illness . Loof is under contract with a club in Finland for another year, and at 20 he has become one of his team’s top four defenders. He will play for Sweden when the world junior championships resume in the Edmonton, Alta., area in August. Glen Wesley, one of the Blues’ development coaches, will be traveling there to spend some time with him.
Wesley is responsible for the young defenders. Ex-Blue Chris Thorburn, who was a kid at heart when he played, has joined the Blues as a development coach who will work with forwards after spending time helping out on a case-by-case basis. Another former blue, Matt D’Agostini, retired as a player after finishing his career in Switzerland, and was on the ice at camp and will help the team from time to time as he transitions to life after hockey, at least on the ice.
Four players made their NHL debuts last season for the Blues. Others will follow. So who’s next in this group to make it to the NHL?
“I don’t know,” Taylor said. “I hope for them all, to be honest. It’s so exciting to see players drafted. And then you go through that first day and their eyes, when they walk into training camp, especially NHL training camp, to see all the players that they grew up watching, and then how they interact, then a year or two later how they are after having spent a year or two in the minor leagues and seeing that they are preparing. They’re ready to make that next jump so there’s no real clarity on who’s next. It’s really our job to push them all in that direction and hopefully someone will be part of the team.