After a quiet Friday at the NHL draft in Sunrise, Florida without a first-round draft pick, the St. Louis Blues went quickly for an offensive defenseman on Saturday by choosing Vince Dunn in the second round.
They also drafted a goalie with local ties in the fifth round, choosing Effingham native and U.S. National Team Development Program member Luke Opilka with the 146th overall pick.
“It was incredible,” said Opilka, a lifelong Blues fan who had his entire family with him at the draft in Sunrise, Fla. “That was the team I was hoping for the whole time. For that to actually happen was unbelievable. I was confident that I'd be taken and I wanted to be there for that moment to experience it. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing so I wanted to be able to be enjoy it with my family.”
He’s fairly sure he is the first hockey goalie from Effingham ever drafted.
“I do believe I’m the first,” said Opilka, who would like to follow fellow St. Louis area goalies Ben Bishop and Mike McKenna into the NHL.
Dunn (6-foot, 187 pounds) had 18 goals and 56 points in 68 games last season for the Niagara Ice Dogs of the Ontario Hockey League. He had four goals in Niagara’s playoff opener against Ottawa.
“I bring a lot of offense,” Dunn said in an interview on the Blues website. “I like to join the rush and I’m not afraid to jump up in the play. I think I can quarterback the power play too, that’s something I really excel at.”
In two seasons with Niagara, Dunn has 23 goals and 89 points in 131 games. Most scouting reports mention his strong skating and puck-moving skills, as well as an effective wrist shot.
“He can really skate,” said Bill Armstrong, the Blues Director of Amateur Scouting. “He probably has characteristics of playing like (Chicago defenseman Brent) Seabrook with his skating and his compete and skill level. He’s obviously got a lot of strength to gain and a lot of work to do in the gym. He’s got to push himself in the gym, but the talent and compete level is what we really like.”
Niagara coach/general manager Marty Williamson praised Dunn in a recent interview with the St. Catharine’s Standard.
“There were a couple of games where we matched him up with (Connor) McDavid and he shut him out and that was kind of stepping stone,” Williamson told the Standard. “All of a sudden (he realized) he could be a great defensive defenseman, too. He could shut guys down and we started playing him against top guys. I don’t know if we quite had that confidence at the start of the season but it grew. His offensive talent was always there.”
Armstrong kept coming back to the strong mix of skill and competitiveness.
“He’s a feisty competitor,” he said.
Opilk’s family moved from Effingham to St. Louis when he was in sixth grade to be closer to hockey training for himself and his younger brother. He began playing hockey as a defenseman for his uncle, a youth coach in Champaign.
“We kind of lived half in St. Louis and half in Effingham for quite a while, but my little brother started to play travel hockey and the commute was too much with three people,” Opilka said.
Opilka (6-1, 192) spent part of his career with the St. Louis Junior Blues organization in 2012-13. From there he moved on to the U. S. National Team Development Program in Michigan.
He was 25-7 last season with the U.S. national team, which competes in the United States Hockey League. The University of Wisconsin recruit also had a 2.77 goals-against average and .883 save percentage with three shutouts.
“We liked him all year long,” Armstrong said. “He kind of had a situation where he didn’t play much at the end of the year, which probably helped us a little bit. He’s a competitor and a focused, driven kid. We really liked him and liked the fact that he’s from St. Louis, too.”
Among his teammates on the U.S. National Development Team are Swansea native and high-scoring forward Clayton Keller and Matthew Tkachuk, the son of former Blues star Keith Tkachuk.
Opilka has skated with Bishop twice and has worked with McKenna every summer for the past four years. Another big influence has been former Blues goaltender Bruce Racine.
“I use them as role models and see how hard they push themselves,” Opilka said. “I’ve worked with Bruce Racine a lot and he gave me some guidance on the importance of working hard.”
With their first of two fourth-round picks (94th overall), the Blues selected center Adam Musil, the son of former NHL defenseman Frantisek (Frank) Musil and nephew of two-time Stanley Cup winner Bobby Holik.
Adam Musil (6-3, 202) had 15 goals and 39 points in 66 games last season with Red Deer in the Western Hockey League. His father played in 797 NHL games with Minnesota, Calgary, Ottawa and Edmonton and was a defense partner for Hall of Famer Al MacInnis in Calgary.
“He fell a little bit in the draft,” Armstrong said. “What we really liked about him was his potential. He’s about 6-3, 6-4 and probably about 210 now and will go about 230 by the time he’s done. We really like the way he’s played. He’s strong on the puck and he’s a big man that can skate and get in there and work the puck.”
The Blues chose another WHL center with their second fourth-round pick, Glenn Gawdin of Swift Current. Gawdin (6-0, 191) had 15 goals and 54 points in 72 games last season and most scouting reports call him a strong two-way center comfortable on the offensive or defensive side of the puck.
“He’s a good two-way center and just a smart hockey player,” Armstrong said..”He’s always in the right position to make things happen. He’s kind of like a jack-of-all-trades who’s got great detail to his game. He’s someone that makes everybody around him better.”
With the 127th pick overall and first of two fifth-round picks, the Blues went with Finnish defenseman Niko Mikkola. Mikkola (6-4, 185) had nine goals and 23 points in 37 games last season with KalPa of the Finland Junior League.
The Blues used their sixth-round pick on left winger Liam Dunda (6-4, 212), a native of Washington. He had two goals and nine points in 53 games in the OHL last season with Plymouth and Owen Sound.