The Rouyn-Noranda Huskies are looking to complete what they could not in 2016: win a Memorial Cup.
They may just have the team to do it, but first they need to lay waste to the rest of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
That’s what they did in the regular season. Boasting three players from that 2016 Memorial Cup squad in league-leading scorer Peter Abbandonato, minute-eating defender Jacob Neveu and record-setting netminder Samuel Harvey, the Huskies set the record for most wins in a single season with 59 wins in 2018-19. Raphael Harvey-Pinard played five games for that 2016 Huskie crew in the regular season and was the team’s second leading scorer this year.
The Huskies are a very strong defensive unit that moves the puck fast and plays with intensity. They lost just one game in the 2019 portion of the schedule.
Rouyn-Noranda made it count in the mid-season trading period as well, trading all of their picks in the first-through-fourth rounds in the next three seasons to acquire three players – Joel Teasdale from the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, Louis-Filip Côté from the Québec Remparts, and Noah Dobson from the defending Memorial Cup champion Acadie-Bathurst Titan. Teasdale boasts 42 points in 29 games, and Dobson added 36 in 28.
The Titan will not be defending their crown, as they missed the playoffs this season, allowing for a new champion that could be wearing red and black. The Huskies have another piece from last year’s champs: head coach Mario Pouliot joined the team, taking over as head coach and GM.
Another team in red and black, the Drummondville Voltigeurs, are the yin to the Huskies yang in terms of contending combatants. While the Huskies dominate with defensive play and timely scoring, the Voltigeurs try to outscore the opposition, and were very successful at it, especially in the second half. The Volts led the league in goals with 338 on the strength of Detroit pick Joe Veleno’s 104 points and Maxime Comtois’s 48 points in just 25 games.
They have the forward depth to put most teams to shame. Nicolas Guay has been an excellent winger with 40 goals. Gregor MacLeod was picked up at the beginning of the season from Québec and put up 84 points. Félix Lauzon’s two-way play was magnified by his 80 points, and Dawson Mercer, not draft-eligible until 2020, had 64 points with his blazing speed and great defensive instincts. This playoff season could be Mercer’s breakout party with the responsibility Steve Hartley and the Volts coaching staff put on his shoulders.
The Huskies, not to be outdone, outscored every team but Drummondville in the regular campaign.
Drummondville and Rouyn-Noranda both benefit from a different playoff format this year, as well. Due to travel issues, the league decided to toss out the previous 1-vs-16, 2-vs-15 format for a conference set-up, putting the league’s 12 Quebec-based teams in three divisions of four, and the Maritimes all in a single division of six. The two western-most divisions were shuffled into the Western Conference, while the East Division and the Maritime teams were linked into the Eastern Conference.
This plan creates an imbalance in the conferences, so the possibility of a crossover exists; if the ninth-best Eastern Conference team has more points than the eighth-best Western Conference team, the Eastern team joins the west for the playoffs, and the eighth-best Western team misses the playoffs. The tenth-based team in the east, if they too have more points than the remaining team in the west, could also cross over.
This possibility nearly happened, with the Saint John Sea Dogs tied in points and holding the tiebreaker over the Shawinigan Cataractes on the league’s final day of the regular season. The Sea Dogs lost in regulation, while the Cataractes lost in overtime, putting them one point ahead of the Dogs and into the final playoff spot. Shawinigan, who made the playoffs despite a 0-14-1-0 record in their final 15 games, will take on the Huskies, a team that has only lost eight times all season.
The first round will be 1-vs-8, 2-vs-7 and the second round will pit the four winners, highest remaining seed playing lowest remaining seed. The third round will be a free-for-all, with the team’s left over ranked by record and seeded one-through-four regardless of conference, and lastly the winners of the third round will meet in the league final.
The possibility of the best two teams meeting in the final is still there, and the two best teams in terms of points, Rouyn-Noranda and Drummondville, will have an easier ride than most one- and two-seeds.
The talent disparity between the Eastern and Western Conferences this year was a sight to behold, perfectly demonstrated by the Sherbrooke Phoenix. The Phoenix, with 77 points, finished third in the west and will have home ice against the Armada. Given the same results, if Sherbrooke was in the east, they would have finished in eighth place, and would be playing the Conference-leading and Memorial Cup hosting Halifax Mooseheads. Quite a jump in competition, and on the road, no less.
The Mooseheads overtook the Baie-Comeau Drakkar to win the East crown on the final day, and they will have home-ice assured for the first two rounds. While they received some criticism for potentially not doing enough during the mid-season trading period, making the fewest trades of any team, the Mooseheads are coming in with a very strong outfit that had a better 2019 than 2018. Head coach Eric Veilleux and the personnel struggled at times in terms of game-plan; Veilleux is a more defensive coach and the players he is directing are more offensive-minded, but he does his best coaching in the playoffs, and has a league final in 2013 and a Memorial Cup championship in 2012 to his credit.
Samuel Asselin, acquired from the Titan in the season’s first week, had an excellent campaign and was the most consistent Moosehead over the 68 games, firing a league-topping 48 goals and 86 points for Halifax. Anaheim prospects Benoît-Olivier Groulx and Antoine Morand both shone in the regular season as well, with 80 and 70 points, respectively. Arnaud Durandeau kept pace as well, as the Islanders hopeful had 73 points of his own. Detroit prospect Jared McIsaac was second in defenceman points with 62 in 53 games. Having Edmonton prospect Ostap Safin back in the lineup in March after missing several months with recurring hip issues is a major boost to the scoring touch of the team.
Fans will keep a close eye on Raphael Lavoie, projected as potentially the league’s biggest draft prospect for this June’s NHL draft. Lavoie had a very hot February with 24 points in the month, and while he was kept off the scoresheet in his last three games, needs a big playoff and Memorial Cup to keep himself above the competition, namely Moncton’s Jakob Pelletier and Sherbrooke’s Samuel Poulin.
The Drakkar are the Mooseheads’ biggest challengers in the east, and they held the title until the league’s final games. Much like the Huskies, the Volts and the Mooseheads, the Drakkar boast major scoring in their lineup. San Jose prospect Ivan Chekhovich was six points off the league leader in Abbandonato with 105 points, and Nathan Légaré, a 2019 draft hopeful, was tied for eighth in league scoring with 87 points and tied for second in the league with 45 goals. Their top four scorers all scored at least 35 goals, and they beefed up the back end with additions of Keenan MacIsaac from the Titan and Pascal Corbeil of the Armada.
The team did not sit pat with their goaltending either, as GM Steve Ahern acquired three capable goaltenders in Alex D’Orio from Saint John, Dereck Baribeau from Québec and Lucas Fitzpatrick from Shawinigan. Due to Baribeau’s injury in early January sidelining him for the rest of the regular season, D’Orio has been the team’s starting goaltender, and the Penguins’ signee has shown that with a contending team, he is a very good starting goaltender who can handle a lot of shots. The Drakkar do not give up a lot of shots, though, being fourth in the league in shots against at just 26-and-a-half.
The Eastern Conference is the side to watch in the first two rounds, as they had seven teams breach the 85-point barrier to the west’s two. The Rimouski Oceanic, upset in last year’s first round by the Moncton Wildcats, bring in Alexis Lafrenière for his second playoff run, and they added big muscle in Calgary prospect D’Artignan Joly to a lineup that already boasted high-flying Tampa signee Jimmy Huntington and defensive leading scorer and Charles-Edouard D’Astous. Lafrenière’s 105 points already secures him as a top prospect for 2020, but he will want to get further than the opening round this time around. The Oceanic will go as far as 2019 prospect Colten Ellis can take them from the red line.
While Charlottetown traded away Arizona first rounder Pierre-Olivier Joseph to Drummondville, they were able to get New Jersey prospect Xavier Bernard in the deal. Matt Welsh is capable of stealing a series in net and would be talked about more in NHL circles if he was taller than 5-11”. A team could still take a flyer on him and be well-off; he never quits on a play and excels in making saves however necessary. Anaheim prospect Hunter Drew has made more great strides in his game, and 2019 potential picks Nikita Alexandrov and Brett Budgell are joined by sharpshooter Daniel Hardie and former Titan forward Jordan Maher for experience. Jim Hulton is a very good coach and an excellent motivator, and he has a group he can mold for a playoff run, despite selling off his best asset.
The Islanders’ first round opponents will be the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, who acquired Derek Gentille and Minnesota prospect Shawn Boudrias at the deadline. Ottawa pick Kevin Mandolese will have to earn his keep in the net against the Isles, and former Titan forward Mitch Balmas, two-time 40-goal scorer, will hope to improve upon his five goals in last year’s playoff run. The Eagles may be a year away, but this would be a very pivotal moment in the growth of this year’s core going forward, and they are more than capable of pulling off an upset.
Chicoutimi was a player in the Noah Dobson sweepstakes; as part of a handshake agreement, Dobson was sent to Rouyn-Noranda, but with mostly Chicoutimi draft picks. Those picks were sent to the Huskies by Chicoutimi for facilitation and the ability to acquire William Dufour. The trade was a part of the Titan’s deal for Olivier Galipeau last season; the Sags wanted the ability to re-acquire Dobson next year if faced with the possibility, but also take in Dufour as a potential core piece for the future. If Dobson went through Chicoutimi directly, the Saguenéens would not be able to re-acquire him for three years.
Chicoutimi under Yanick Jean have been rebuilding for a couple of years, but they have three of the first seven picks from last year’s first round on the team in Dufour, Hendrix Lapierre and Théo Rochette. All three have received international attention and will be important building blocks for the team in future years, and this team will gain valuable experience in the post-season, with the potential of netminder Alexis Shank stealing a game or two against Rimouski.
Jakob Pelletier is a player whose game gets better as the chips are down, and he is potentially the Wildcats’ most important player in their playoff push. Jeremy McKenna’s 97 points does not hurt either, but the Wildcats changed coaches in January and struggled to find their game at times this season. They made moves to get better at Christmas but saw a team that sold off players in Charlottetown and a team that more or less stood pat in Chicoutimi, adding just William Dufour and shuffling in Liam Murphy for Jesse Sutton, surpass them in the standings. The team is playing better under the watchful eye of John Torchetti, but the playoffs are a different animal.
Samuel Poulin is also a player who benefits when the checking gets close. He is big, fast and smart, and he can play physical as well as contribute offensively. The Phoenix scored more goals this year than any other year in their history, but do not have a scorer who jumps off the page; Poulin’s 29 goals tied for the team lead, matched by Alex-Olivier Voyer. Poulin will be relied upon heavily in the post-season, but the Phoenix have eight players with 42 points or more in the regular campaign.
The Eastern Conference is a wide-open group with good teams set to pack after the first round, while the West feature the two top teams in the league in the Huskies and the Voltigeurs. One would expect those latter two teams to make it to the final four, but any of the top seven teams in the east could make a run for the President’s Cup.
Who will meet the Mooseheads in Halifax at the 2019 Memorial Cup in May? The Huskies have recent history on their side, and the league’s wins record to boot. 16 more wins to their 59 they have already amassed seems most likely.
Rouyn-Noranda over Shawinigan in 4
Drummondville over Gatineau in 4
Blainville-Boisbriand over Sherbrooke in 7 (with goaltending leading to the mild upset)
Victoriaville over Val d’Or in 6
Halifax over Quebec in 5
Baie-Comeau over Moncton in 5
Rimouski over Chicoutimi in 7
Charlottetown over Cape Breton in 6
Rouyn-Noranda over Blainville-Boisbriand in 4
Drummondville over Victoriaville in 6
Halifax over Charlottetown in 7
Baie-Comeau over Rimouski in 6
Rouyn-Noranda over Baie-Comeau in 6
Drummondville over Halifax in 7
Rouyn-Noranda over Drummondville in 6