The biggest event in junior hockey begins tonight, as the year-end Memorial Cup Tournament opens in Halifax, Nova Scotia. For a refresher, the champions of the three Canadian Hockey League member leagues – the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and Western Hockey League – and a rotating host team square off in a round-robin tournament each year to determine Canadian junior hockey’s premier team. Each of the four contenders play one another once, after which the standings allow for a semi-final and final round. The action begins tonight and continues through the week, with the playoff rounds scheduled for May 24th and 26th. As for the competitors, the Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL) play host to the Guelph Storm (OHL), Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL), and Prince Albert Raiders (WHL). Below is a summary of each team’s season and top players for those interested in following the action over the next ten days:
Halifax Mooseheads (49-15-4)
This year’s host team was nearly a league champion themselves. The Moosheads fell to the Huskies in six games in the QMJHL Final, but will have a second chance against the team at least once in the Memorial tournament. Halifax is led by 20-year-old undrafted center Samuel Asselin, whose 86 points led the team and were a top-ten finish in the league, but all eyes will instead be on his young, draft-eligible line mate. Raphael Lavoie, who has had an up-and-down season, picked a good time to be on the up. With the NHL Draft a month away, Lavoie caught fire in the QMJHL playoffs. The 6’4″ right wing recorded 32 points in 23 postseason games, almost half of his 73 regular season points, which was far-and-away the most on the Mooseheads and second-best in the league. Most draft rankings and mock drafts have Lavoie falling somewhere in the middle ten picks of the upcoming first round and the Memorial Cup is his final chance to prove he should go earlier instead of later. The big winger plays a physically dominant game that often looks effortless, but he can also flip a switch and show off stellar skill. Also up front for Halifax are are a pair of recent Anaheim Ducks second-round selections, Benoit-Olivier Groulx and Antoine Morand, and New York Islanders’ sixth-round sleeper pick Arnaud Durandeau. Leading the defense is the daunting pair of top Detroit Red Wings blue line prospect Jared McIsaac and promising 2020-eligible rearguard Justin Barron, a likely first-round pick next year. The Mooseheads are as strong in the top-six and on the top pair as any team in this tournament, but it is in their depth that they could fall short. However, there is always the chance that goaltender Alexis Gravel, the Chicago Blackhawks’ 2018 sixth-rounder, could steal a game if the skaters fall short. Gravel finished in the top five in both save percentage and goals against average among QMJHL starters this season.
Guelph Storm (40-18-10)
No one expected Guelph to be here. The Storm, who entered the playoffs with the eighth-best record in the OHL, were down 3-0 in their second-round series against the division rival London Knights and managed to mount a four-win comeback to advance. They then fell behind by two games against both the Saginaw Spirit in the third round and Ottawa 67’s in the OHL Final to win it all. This team is nothing if not resilient and will be a tough out in this tournament. While Arizona Coyotes’ forward prospect Nate Schnarr enjoyed an excellent season, leading Guelph with 102 points and finishing in the OHL’s top-ten in points and assists, there is little argument that he is still the best forward for the Storm. Acquired in January, Montreal Canadiens top prospect Nick Suzuki has been superhuman since arriving in Guelph. The talented forward recorded 49 points in 29 games to close out the regular season and then another 42 points in 24 playoff games en route to a championship. Suzuki might be the most dangerous player in the Memorial Cup tournament, which is a major boost for the Storm. He’s not alone though; Suzuki and Schnarr lead a forward corps that includes NHL-bound power forwards Isaac Ratcliffe of the Philadelphia Flyers, MacKenzie Entwistle of the Chicago Blackhawks, and Liam Hawel of the Dallas Stars. The defense is also stout behind mainstays Dmitri Samorukov of the Edmonton Oilers and draft-eligible Owen Lalonde and trade additions Markus Phillips and Sean Durzi the Los Angeles Kings. Guelph would be the favorites to win the Memorial Cup if it wasn’t for their goaltending issues. If Anthony Popovich can find his game and that weakness goes away, the Storm are in good shape. The OHL is traditionally the strongest of the three CHL leagues, which is evidenced by the depth of talent that Guelph, the eighth-best OHL squad in the regular season, has versus the best teams of the QMJHL and WHL.
Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (59-8-1)
Rouyn-Noranda’s regular season mirrored that of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The team was dominant from beginning to end and won the QMJHL regular season title by a whopping 12 points and finished with a goal differential of +182. Fortunately for them, the similarities ended in the postseason. The Huskies continued to roll all the way to the league championship. Leading the way, regular season and postseason, has been league scoring title-winner Peter Abbandonato. Abbandonato, 21, recorded 111 points this season and tacked on another 27 in the postseason. An undrafted prospect, Abbandonato has not let the lack of NHL commitment slow him down as he has been near-impossible to stop all season. He also has a deep supporting cast, including talented first-time draft-eligible prospect Alex Beaucage, and over-agers Raphael Harvey-Pinard and Felix Bibeau, as well as Boston Bruins draft pick Jakub Lauko and Montreal Canadiens signee Joel Teasdale. Trade acquisition Noah Dobson, the twelfth overall pick last year by the New York Islanders, has also had a massive impact for the team both defensively and offensively. Dobson is arguably the best player in the tournament and could be the x-factor for the Huskies. The story of Rouyn-Noranda’s season to this point though has been the stellar goalie tandem of Samuel Harvey and San Jose Sharks pick Zachary Emond, both of whom posted a save percentage of better than .925 and a goals against average below 2.10 in the regular season. Harvey, who started 20 of 21 playoff games, put up even better numbers when it mattered most. If the 21-year-old net minder keeps up that level of play, the Huskies will be hard to beat.
Prince Albert Raiders (54-10-4)
The Raiders were just as, if not more dominant in the WHL as the Huskies were in the QMJHL, winning the regular season title by 11 points and recording a goal differential of +151, more than 50% better than the next-best team. Yet, Prince Albert accomplished such a campaign without much game-breaking talent, perhaps why they came within an overtime goal away from losing in the WHL Final to the Vancouver Giants. The Raiders have good players, but on paper they pale in comparison to the other three competing teams. That doesn’t erase what they have already accomplished this season, but it could put them at a disadvantage in inter-league play. Leading the Raiders is a player whose name hockey fans will know before the NHL Draft, if they don’t already. 20-year-old forward Brett Leason is a once-in-a-generation late bloomer who was passed over in two drafts already before breaking out this season. His play has caught seemingly everyone’s eye, as he earned a spot on Team Canada’s World Junior team earlier this year and is considered by some to be a first-round pick possibility in June. Leason’s numbers back up the hype; not only is he 6’4″ and over 200 lbs., but the power forward scored 36 goals and totaled 89 points in just 55 games this year. He then added 25 more points in 22 postseason games. Leason is a force in the offensive end – shooting, passing, possessing, and forechecking – and will be one of the tougher players to match up with in the tournament. Right beside Leason all season long has been San Jose Sharks selection Noah Gregor, who finished just one point behind Leason but still within the WHL’s top ten scorers. Cole Fonstad, property of the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators free agent addition Parker Kelly, and another intriguing draft prospect, Alexei Protas, also play key roles up front for Prince Albert. Outside of WHL plus/minus leader Brayden Pachal, the Raiders are pretty thin on the blue line, but star goalie Ian Scott hasn’t let it affect him. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ keeper of the future has been phenomenal this season, posting a sub-2.00 goals against average and .932 save percentage in the regular season and replicating those numbers in the postseason. Gravel and Harvey may be able to steal a game in the Memorial Cup, but a hot Scott could steal the whole tournament.