Darren Eliot
Monday October 6th, 2008

The NHL opened with a European weekend and Steve Stamkos, the top pick in the 2008 entry draft, looked every bit the part of a main cog in the Tampa Bay Lightning's aggressive remodeling effort. He has that on-ice air about him that many special players have. He has presence and exudes a quiet confidence that bodes well for the Bolts, and for Stamkos to ultimately have his name engraved on the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie.

As good as Stamkos has looked, another rookie grabbed my attention during the preseason: Patrik Berglund of the St. Louis Blues. The lanky Swedish centerman was the best performer at the Traverse City prospect tournament and he continued to stand during the exhibition slate. He's a longshot for the Calder with Stamkos as his competition -- just like the Blues remain a dark horse for playoff consideration in the top-to-bottom tough Central Division -- but Berglund is yet another piece of the Blues' patient rebuilding under president John Davidson.

"It looks a lot better than a couple of years ago, doesn't it?" JD asked after the Blues concluded their preseason schedule. The answer: it certainly does. The Blues are forging an identity. They come in waves. They are relentless in their pursuit and disciplined in their systems under coach Andy Murray. They remind me of the Washington Capitals of a couple of seasons ago under then- coach Glen Hanlon in that they may not rise this season in the standings, but when they do, it will be because the skill and collective experience of their young players has caught up to the work ethic that has already been established.

Granted, the Caps have game-changing goal-scorer Alex Ovechkin, the reigning NHL MVP. The Blues don't have that one elite player, and as good as I think Berglund is going to be, he isn't an Ovechkin-like talent. Those players are rare. The Blues do, however, have a raft of wingers in David Perron, David Backes, Lee Stempniak, Jay McClement and rookie TJ Oshie who can all skate and they love to grind. Andy McDonald -- a steal of a deal from Anaheim last season for veteran Doug Weight -- and 43-goal scorer Brad Boyes complement veterans Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya up front.

While Berglund stood out and Oshie looked like a keeper, the Blues' retooling actually began on the blueline. Disappointingly, Erik Johnson suffered a serious knee injury in camp after a fine rookie campaign. He remains the cornerstone, assuming everything goes well during the arduous rehabilitation process that is ahead of him over the next nine months. Even in his absence, the depth on defense is impressive enough that Alex Pietrangelo, the fourth overall pick of the summer, does not necessarily have to be rushed into the mix.

The Blues still have veterans Barret Jackman, Eric Brewer and Jay McKee to anchor their defense, but this team will be defined by the continued cohesive development of their young talent. I offered up my thoughts on how impressive some of these young players looked, and Davidson remarked with his eyes glinting, "and there's four or five more right behind them."

All of which is a testament to the work being done by Davidson, Murray and VP of Player Personnel Doug Armstrong. It might not mean making the playoffs this time around, but when they do, the Blues will be in position to be regular participants for the foreseeable future.

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