By Dave Eminian
Of The Journal Star
PEORIA, Ill. – One of the best-kept secrets the St. Louis Blues have is parked on left wing with the Peoria Rivermen.
Peoria rookie Justin Maiser is an emerging two-way player who would probably have seen significant AHL time this season if not for the NHL lockout.
“I’ve been kind of laying low here, waiting patiently all year for that call-up, so when it came it was incredibly exciting,” said Maiser, who earned a one-game stint with AHL Worcester earlier this month.
“I knew I was putting out my best effort, and I’ve stayed positive. What an experience it was to see the AHL. It’s a different level, especially with so many NHL guys playing in it this year. More precision, sharper skating, perfect passing and a very controlled game.”
The Blues are being careful with Maiser, who is only 21 and was the NHL club’s fifth-round pick in the 2002 Entry Draft. Much like St. Louis did with Nelson Emerson years ago – leave him in Peoria all season with a veteran team to develop, even though he might have been ready to move up – the Blues have put Maiser in a good situation.
The Edina, Minn., native is one of just five rookies on Peoria’s roster.
“It’s been such an advantage for me to play with older guys like Tyler Rennette, Trevor Baker, Brian McCullough, they’ve helped me on and off the ice,” Maiser said. “You can’t believe how much I’d love to follow the path Emerson took.”
The 6-foot, 190-pound Maiser is a rare player, highly skilled in combination with a checking liner’s grit. When he was 17, he won a spot on the U.S. National 18-under team. He could also bench-press 215 pounds, and he’s been throwing his weight around ever since.
Read one NHL scouting report: “Maiser is a fiery competitor with a mean, nasty edge to his game, but he also has soft hands and is a slick puckhandler with excellent vision and terrific passing skills.”
A definitive two-way winger. His 14 goals and 10 assists, with 80 penalty minutes and a break-even rating in 53 games are best among Peoria’s rookies and sixth on the team in scoring.
His veteran teammates are impressed with his work ethic and hustle. That’s something Maiser has shown since he was 4 and learning to skate on an outdoor rink across the street from his home. He spent so much time there, he’d eat his dinner on the ice and do his homework there, too.
Maiser grew up to play hockey at Boston University, where in 2002 he scored two goals in a 5-3 win over Northeastern to give BU the championship of the 50th Beanpot Tournament, and earn tourney MVP honors. The next year, he notched a hat trick – including the winner in double-overtime – to beat Boston College in the Hockey East semis.
After 45 points and 131 penalty minutes in two seasons with BU, Maiser jumped to Seattle in the rugged Western Hockey League.
“I wanted to play a more physical game, a pro style game and prepare for the pros,” Maiser said. “I liked BU, but I wanted to make the next step.”
And that’s what he’s doing again in Peoria, although there’s one step he’d like to skip as the Rivermen battle in a clogged division and try to extend their franchise streak of making the playoffs to 18 straight years.
“We missed the playoffs by one point last year in Seattle,” Maiser said. “I don’t want to be in that position again. We keep talking about having urgency when we play, but right now that’s the thing we’re missing.
“So I’m willing to do whatever this team needs.”