Friday, March 25, 2011

2011 QMJHL Playoff Predictions

QMJHL playoffs are underway, and these predictions wouldn’t truly be mine if they weren’t late due to nothing but pure laziness. Game one in each series is underway – the Halifax-Montreal series is ahead of the curve, with game one having been played on Thursday. I took the pre-emptive strike of calling that series early on Twitter.

Before I make playoff predictions, let’s see how my attempt at regular season predictions held up. This is how I ranked it, with each team’s actual finish in brackets:

1. Saint John (1)
2. Acadie-Bathurst (2)

3. PEI (4)
4. Moncton (3)
5. Halifax (5)
6. Cape Breton (6)

Telus East:
1. Rimouski (4)
2. Quebec (1)
3. Lewiston (2)
4. Chicoutimi (5)
5. Vicoriaville (3)
6. Baie-Comeau (6)

Telus West:
1. Montreal (1)
2. Drummondville (2)
3. Gatineau (3)
4. Shawinigan (4)
5. Val-d’Or (5)
6. Rouyn-Noranda (6)

So I somehow managed to nail the Telus West division and did pretty well with the Maritimes. Also: lol Rimouski. What a bad season they had. Hopefully my playoff predictions turn out as well as the regular season ones did.

(1) Saint John vs. (16) Cape Breton

78 point & 40 win differential. This one is going to be absolutely hideous. I’ve seen these two match up three times this season and the Sea Dogs played pretty poorly every time. They still managed to win two of them and hold the Eagles to four goals in the three games. The Eagles should count their blessings if they can win a period in this series.

Prediction: Saint John in 4 games.

(2) Montreal vs. (15) Halifax

Montreal shouldn’t have too much trouble with Halifax. They basically ran away with game 1 aside from two late Mooseheads goals to make it close and it’ll probably be much of the same throughout the series. I give the Mooseheads the benefit of the doubt that they might be able to surprise the Juniors at the Metro Centre, as I’d expect there will be quite a crowd when the series shifts to Halifax.

Prediction: Montreal in 5 games.

(3) Quebec vs. (14) Val d’Or

I’m not as sold on Quebec as a legitimate threat to the title as I am for some teams that they finished ahead of. That said, they should be able to handle the Foreurs fairly easily. These are a couple of teams I haven’t seen a whole lot of this season, unfortunately.

Prediction: Quebec in 5 games.

(4) Drummondville vs. (13) Chicoutimi

The Voltigeurs have added some solid pieces for a run this year. With Sean Couturier leading the charge, anything could happen, though they’re a long way from favourites. Having said that, they shouldn’t have much of a problem with Chicoutimi. Chris Gibson might be able to steal a game or two for the Sags but I’d expect this one to be another laugher.

Prediction: Drummondville in 4 games

(5) Gatineau vs. (12) Rimouski

This one has the potential to be an entertaining series. Gatineau geared up for a run by adding league scoring leader Philip-Michael Devos, not to mention the return of captain Hubert Labrie from an injury that kept him out nearly the entire season. Rimouski hasn’t played to their potential all season and I’m not inclined to expect them to now.

Prediction: Gatineau in 6 games

(6) Acadie-Bathurst vs. (11) Victoriaville

The Titan are an odd one. They clearly indicated their intention to gun for it this year by trading the farm for Olivier Roy in the summer, but haven’t done a whole lot to solidify themselves as a favourite. Roy could carry them far, but he’s had an off year. They should be able to get past Victoriaville, at least, without much trouble.

Prediction: Acadie-Bathurst in 5 games

(7) Shawinigan vs. (10) PEI

Shawinigan has a great team, and one that seems to play a style that would be successful in the playoffs. They work hard and get contributions from the whole lineup. However, they don’t have Evan Mosher. The Rocket goaltender has been a total monster all season and could easily come in and steal two or three games in this series. PEI has a good enough team that they could win another game or two without Mosher standing on his head, and that’s why I’m calling an upset here.

Prediction: PEI in 6 games

(8) Lewiston vs. (9) Moncton

This is a tough one to pick. Lewiston could hand this series to Moncton if they get into penalty trouble. Moncton also has some players still on their roster that won the President’s Cup last year en route to the Memorial Cup, so that experience could pay off. But goaltending could shoot them in the foot, too. Lewiston probably has the better team on paper, but there aren’t many players in the league who can control the game like Wildcats D Brandon Gormley. Difficult call? Yep.

Prediction: Moncton in 7 games

I doubt I’ll get to many playoff games this season as the two Nova Scotia teams are likely to be decimated early. Maybe a Saint John-Cape Breton game next week if I’m feeling masochistic, and if Halifax does indeed manage to steal one from Montreal, a road trip could be in order next weekend. In any case, I’ll be watching along with the Telus package before casting it off into the abyss at the end of the playoffs, never to be seen again. What a terrible service. Really looking forward to seeing how the 2011-eligibles boost their draft stock before June, along with watching the Sea Dogs win 16 straight en route to the Memorial Cup and thinking the whole time, “These guys are planning to peak NEXT season.” Enjoy the playoffs, folks.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

QMJHL Thoughts Explosion

Image from Rogers Sportsnet

Tons of things have gone down in the last week, so I’ll try to knock down some of the key topics all at once.

First off, Wednesday night kicks off a run of four games in five days for the Drummondville Voltiguers in the Maritimes, meaning Sean Couturier is in town. My only chance to see him live was at the Subway Super Series in Saint John in November, so I’m excited to be catching him in four games. The Volts visit the Screaming Eagles on Wednesday night, followed by an exciting back-to-back against the Saint John Sea Dogs on Friday and Saturday nights, and a matinee in Moncton Sunday. Just call it “Cou-Tour-ier 2011”.

Not entirely shocked that Couturier is ranked second among North American skaters by Central Scouting. His numbers are still great, but he hasn’t dominated the Q maybe as much as expected. Part of that can be attributed to a bout with mono that deprived him of training camp. He really turned it on late last season to take the league scoring title; he’s on pace to finish 3 points below last year in 10 fewer games played. His World Junior performance was average, certainly nothing to solidify him as the top prospect, obviously. He was a solid presence throughout the tournament, making strong defensive plays and creating some offense. Nothing spectacular, but he hardly had a terrible tournament.

Talk about the benefits of playing for a stacked & heavily scouted team. Nine Sea Dogs made the cut, plus Guillaume Cloutier who was traded last week. The scouts came for the Big Four: Jonathan Huberdeau, Nathan Beaulieu, Tomas Jurco and Zack Phillips, and the secondary players enjoyed the benefits. Ryan Tesink, Scott Oke, Aidan Kelly, Gabriel Bourret and Jason Cameron are all role players on the Sea Dogs, but manage to be ranked (and ranked generously in some cases) due to plenty of scouts in attendance at each game. I’d venture a guess that MAYBE half of those players would be ranked if they played in Baie-Comeau or Rouyn-Noranda, and certainly not as high.

Great to see Jonathan Huberdeau ranked 4th among North American skaters with the beat down he’s been laying on the Q this season. While I’d be a little surprised to see him actually go in the top-10, I think somewhere in the middle of the first round is likely. Early in the season I thought he’d have been somewhere in the mid-20s. Interesting to note that Zack Phillips, who was ranked ridiculously low in the domestic rankings in the fall (11th in the Q) was at 12th among all North American skaters. Higher than I expected; same goes for Nathan Beaulieu. He’s been hot and cold in the games I’ve seen this year. He can make some excellent plays, particularly offensively, but his decision making needs serious improvement if he’s to earn his keep as the 2nd best North American defenseman in the draft. Logan Shaw was ranked much higher than I expected at 52. He might be a solid late-round project type of guy, but I’d be shocked if he went any earlier than the 5th or 6th round. Also wondering where Olivier Archambault may end up being taken; I haven’t seen much of him, but from what I have, the kid has a lot of skill.

I really like the moves made by Saint John at the deadline. The addition of Mathieu Corbeil could end up being a brilliant one. He’s had a terrible year in Halifax and seems to have little confidence, but I’ve seen a number of games where he stands on his head and still loses because the Mooseheads are terrible. He’ll split time with Jacob De Serres for the rest of the regular season, likely take a seat for the playoffs, and if his confidence returns for next season, the Sea Dogs might be as good as unstoppable.

I’m a little surprised Montreal didn’t go all in for another superstar player to make a run this year. Louis Leblanc is gone next season, so it’s now or never. Even without that superstar, the addition of Viktor Hertzberg gives them a great top-6 forward group, to go with a few standout defensemen and a solid kicker in JF Berube. You have to like that team as a favourite heading into the playoffs.

Gatineau’s deal for Philip-Michael Devos came as a bit of a surprise to me. Gatineau’s been hot lately but didn’t really seem like a team that was going to be gunning for it, at least not this hard. They gave up a massive part of their future to get the league’s scoring leader, so they’d better hope they make a deep playoff run.

I’m more than a little concerned with the direction the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles are heading in. This isn’t to say they did poorly at the trade deadline; they actually got great returns on Viktor Hertzberg and Pier-Antoine Dion. My worries revolve around the comments from the man steering the ship. Mario Durocher had said he wanted to have a team that would make the playoffs this year and contend next year, and of course, they’re also bidding on next year’s Memorial Cup. Obviously those deals don’t help them for this year, and those comments combined with the rumours floating around make it seem likely that some of those high draft picks are going back to their respective teams for 19- and 20-year olds at the draft. By that time the Memorial Cup will have already been awarded (hint: not to Cape Breton), the Eagles still won’t have a team that can win next year, and to achieve all that, they’ll have let some great building blocks slip through their fingers. If this team was going to have any shot at the Memorial Cup, it should have been selling off assets last year to build toward next year. Instead it looks like they’re going to be in a buyer’s mindset for three seasons longer than they should have been.

I’ll likely report back on Cou-Tour-ier 2011 sometime next week. That phrase is trademarked now, by the way.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

QMJHL Trade Period Musings

The floodgates are about to open on the QMJHL trading period, and an interesting one it will be. This is where the contenders will be definitively separated from the pretenders, but with the Q hosting the Memorial Cup next year, teams will be hesitant to hamstring themselves for the future, because a finals appearance in 2012 may be all that’s needed for a berth in the Mem Cup. So, some random thoughts as things start to ramp up:

Montreal could be the team to watch over the next couple of weeks. Louis Leblanc is their star attraction and they know he’s gone after this season. They won’t have a better chance to gun for it than right now, so they could be very active. Here’s some food for thought: Leblanc and Sean Couturier of Drummondville were linemates at Canada’s World Junior summer camp. If they end up back together for the tournament and strike up some chemistry, you have to think Pascal Vincent will be kicking the tires on that option.

Speaking of Drummondville, they’re in an interesting position themselves. They have the best all-around player in the league in Couturier, and need to decide what to do with him. With the very real possibility that he sticks in the NHL next year, do they sell him off, content with their 2009 title, and build for a run in a year or two? Or do they decide that going for it with Couturier on their side is too good to pass up? They’re having a great season, but that move (or non-move) will make or break it.

Another rumoured destination for Couturier has been Bathurst, mainly based on the fact that A) his father is the general manager and B) they’re in go-for-it mode. You have to think the elder Couturier is going to make a splash, if not by landing his son, then some other way. Olivier Roy is unlikely to be back for his over-age season, and Bathurst didn’t go nuts with trades in the summer just to win a round or two. They need something (or two) to push them over the top.

The Brandon Gormley question is one that needs to be addressed in Moncton in short order. Though injured now, he’s arguably the best defenseman the QMJHL has to offer. This is only his age-18 season, but it’s a possibility that he lands a job in Phoenix full time come October. A quick look at the Coyotes shows Morris, Aucoin, Sauer, Ekman-Larsson and Schlemko under contract for next season, with Yandle and Lepisto scheduled to be RFAs and sure to be back. Does that only leave Gormley as a third pairing guy, or do they make a move to accommodate him if he really impresses? No doubt Danny Flynn will be having some good chats with Don Maloney in the coming days. Neil Hodge has a better breakdown on the Wildcats’ options if you’re interested.

Appropriate to wrap up with the Saint John Sea Dogs, as there are a ton of possibilities there. Like most teams sitting first overall at the break, they’re weighing their options for a run in the spring. But more than any other team, they’re looking to 2012 and their Memorial Cup aspirations, be they hosts or league champs. They already have an impressive group of youngsters that will be the core going forward, but the goaltending situation is one that may need to be dealt with. Do they take a crack at Gusse or Gibson in Chicoutimi to be their go-to guy, thus not using an over-age spot in goal next season? They could also use some grit on the lower lines. A guy like Philippe Paradis could be the answer, but he’s unlikely to be back next year and would be pricey. A poor-man’s option might be Pier-Antoine Dion in Cape Breton, who can chip in some offense while playing an in-your-face physical style, would be affordable, and would be back as an over-ager next season.

These are just a few of the many storylines that expect to unfold over the next two-and-a-half weeks. The landscape of the QMJHL will certainly be shifted once we all come down off our World Junior high, and it will make for an exciting finish to this year and a great precursor to the arrival of the Memorial Cup in 2012.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Prediction: Canada's WJC Team

Photo by Richard Wolowicz, Getty Images

The Team Canada World Junior Selection Camp is a few days along now, with cuts expected Tuesday. I figured I’d take a crack at predicting the lineup before the cuts begin, so here’s one man’s opinion based on the things floating around in my brain. Expect it to be completely correct.

J. Schwartz – B. Schenn – B. Connolly
B. Pirri – S. Couturier – L. Leblanc
C. Eakin – R. Johansen – Z. Kassian
Q. Howden – C. Cizikas – C. Ashton
B. Ross

J. Cowen – R. Ellis
C. de Haan – E. Gudbranson
S. Despres – D. Olsen
R. Murphy

O. Roy
C. Pickard

Basically with this lineup you’ve got a good forward mix of guys with size and skill. The top two lines would be leaned on to score, with the third line made up of big boys who can shake things up physically and chip in offensively. The fourth line would be an energy group, and Ross as the 13th forward can provide a spark in an agitator role. Also, he’s a Leaf which fills the bias quota in the lineup.

Selection camp is heavy with puck movers and offensive-minded guys on the blueline. Despite possessing the skating ability of a dumptruck, Jared Cowen seems to be a lock for a spot, so he gets slotted with Ellis who can bail him out when he forgets that legs are allowed to move. Cowen, Gudbranson and Olsen are all considered of the shutdown-type, so I paired each off with a more offensive-minded partner for my purposes. I originally had Tyson Barrie penciled in as the seventh defenseman, but I think it’s better to get Murphy that experience since Barrie is hardly a big step ahead, if he is at all.

In goal it’s my man-crush Olivier Roy with the starting job, backed up by a guy in Pickard who is used to seeing more rubber than Sasha Grey doing her thing in a tire factory.

All in all, as has been preached for weeks now, this team is not going to come by anything easily. They aren’t stacked with talent like they’ve been used to in some of the previous years and will rely on a balanced attack, strong defensive play, and probably some big performances from their goaltending. However, this team is not completely devoid of scoring ability. Brayden Schenn is the centerpiece, but this could really be a coming out party for Louis Leblanc. Jaden Schwartz and Brett Connolly will also be instrumental in creating offense. This team might compare best to the 2006 squad that won gold in Vancouver with a hard-hitting and hard-working attitude. Ultimately, the biggest factor could be the system that Dave Cameron employs. There’s enough talent here to win gold, but they’ll need to buy in to get past the American juggernaut.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Roy Returns, Represents

It has been, and will be, a couple of eventful days for Olivier Roy. He made his return to Cape Breton Sunday afternoon, for the first time as a member of the visiting team, and backstopped his Acadie-Bathurst Titan to a win over the Screaming Eagles. Roy played (spectacularly) in Sydney for the last three seasons before being dealt in the off-season. The Eagles visited Bathurst earlier this season, only to be shut down as Roy earned his 100th career win, and it seemed that another deflating result was on the way in Roy’s Cape Breton homecoming, with him sitting on a goose egg until about 9 minutes left in the game. He stopped 23 of 25 shots in the 4-2 victory.

On top of coming away with the win, he also got a warm reception from the crowd of 3,363 at Centre 200. I missed the pre-game, but as I understand it, he got an ovation when he was announced as the starting goaltender. Deservedly so, as the audience recognized the outstanding work of a goalie that stood on his head to deliver wins that the Eagles had no business collecting over the course of his time there. He got another (relatively) loud ovation when he was named 2nd star, though the crowd had thinned out considerably as the game was delayed for penalties to be sorted out with three minutes to go and the home team down 4-1.

Next up for Olivier Roy: Buffalo, New York. Hockey Canada will name the selection camp roster for the World Juniors Monday and Roy will be at camp, he’ll make the cut, and he’ll be the starter as Canada seeks to reclaim its spot at the top of the podium. For Eagles fans, it’ll be great to watch him dazzle on the international stage as he did in the black and gold for three seasons. Canada will get to discover the secret that we’ve known for three years; the goalie factory in Cape Breton has produced another beauty. The sting will come when Roy shuts down the Russians or kicks out four scoring chances on an American powerplay, and Gord Miller utters the phrase, “Olivier Roy of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.” Watching Roy reach the peak of his junior career representing the colours of another club will be bittersweet, but that’s no reason to not be damned proud of him. And a gold medal sure wouldn’t hurt.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Garrett Clarke's Series of Unfortunate Events

With the Halifax Mooseheads officially washing their hands of Garrett Clarke today, I figure it’s about time I weigh in. The troubled defenseman was dealt to Shawinigan today for a 4th round pick after being removed from the roster (read: kicked off the team) at the start of the month. The trade period doesn’t open until December 19th, of course, but that’s A-OK apparently; more on that later. Matthew Wuest of Metro Halifax has a good take on what Clarke is all about, if you’re not up to speed.

In short, Clarke has a penchant for taking selfish, poorly-timed penalties. A quick glance through the scoresheets from earlier this season reveals this, in the form of putting his team down a man when a scrum would have otherwise led to coincidental minors, or nuking a Mooseheads powerplay by taking a penalty early in the man advantage. I saw him once this year, in Sydney during pre-season, and the Mooseheads were set to go to the powerplay after someone took a run at Clarke… until Clarke chased that player wielding his stick like a baseball bat. There was no follow-through, but it was enough for an unsportsmanlike call. It seems like this is the kind of thing that happened all too often over the last season-and-a-bit, ultimately leading to his departure. Oh, and this may be a good time to mention that many observers deemed him to be much more disciplined coming into camp this year compared to last year.

The part that puzzles me is the absolute outrage from many Mooseheads fans about what went down. Obviously Clarke is a very talented player, there’s no denying that, and the few occasions that I did see him play, he stood out in that regard. So yeah, if your best defenseman is sent home, then traded for below value, you’re probably going to be pissed, and that’s fine. But many seem to think that Clarke didn’t deserve this fate, despite being a headache, albeit a skilled one, since arriving in Halifax. How many second chances do you want to hand this guy? He left Lewiston under similar circumstances, complete with less-than-market-value trade, which is why I also don’t buy the criticism of Bobby Smith/Cam Russell, and believe me, I’m no supporter of Russell.

The Mooseheads made a low-risk, high-reward deal to land Clarke in the first place, and now they ship him out in the same fashion. I don’t see why it’s a disaster for the Mooseheads like some seem to think. No doubt those cries will grow louder if Clarke thrives in Shawinigan, but it doesn’t change the fact that things weren’t going to work in Halifax. And if nothing changes with the Cataractes and Clarke’s lack of discipline/possible off-ice issues puts him in the doghouse with a third team in as many years, possibly leading to the blueliner with mid-round draft potential going unpicked in June… can we really say that Bobby Smith and Cam Russell made the wrong move on this one?


Some additional Clarke thoughts…

The whole Clarke situation has been a mess, including the transaction side of things; as Buzzing the Net’s Nathan White noted earlier, Clarke could play up to ten games as an affiliated player with Shawinigan before being traded. He’s now been traded, before the trade period actually opens, but will still be treated as an AP until the trade period. Of course (Wuest chatted with Cataractes GM Martin Mondou today to further clarify things, post-trade). My question is this: why would Halifax rush to complete the transaction before the trade period? That 4th round pick isn’t going to win them any games between now and then, and the two teams play on December 1st. My assumption (and I could be totally wrong on this) is that since Clarke was still Halifax’s property and only on loan to Shawinigan, the Mooseheads could have denied Shawinigan from dressing Clarke against them. Now that the deal is done, Shawinigan can make that call. If that was an option that Halifax had (and again, I don’t know that it was), could you imagine the fallout if Clarke knocks Marty Frk out cold with an open ice hit, or breaks Luca Ciampini’s ankle with a slash? THAT would be a mess.


Finally; if Clarke gets his act together, and Shawinigan manages to somehow sway Michael Matheson from the NCAA route… what a blueline that would make for their Memorial Cup pitch. Matheson’s decision probably wouldn’t come until after the host was named, which Shawinigan is bidding for, and recruiting Matheson seems to be a one-in-a-million chance to begin with, but the top prospect from the past draft would be a huge boost to their chances to represent the Q next season.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

An Ode to Olivier

You know when you have that one favourite player, the one that would make you sick to your stomach to see in another team’s colours? I remember when Alex Steen was traded to St. Louis – I loved the guy, hated to see him go. I feel like it’ll be a looooong season for many Cape Breton Screaming Eagles fans in that regard.

One of the things that always screws me up about the QMJHL is some of the trades. You have to pay attention to every single deal or you can get lost. Olivier Roy, probably the best goalie in the league, was essentially traded by Cape Breton to Lewiston for a pair of 2nd round picks, which makes zero sense on its own, especially when he was flipped to Bathurst the next day for a huge package including the 1st overall pick in the June draft. Given the nature of junior hockey, these things happen – Roy was essentially future considerations, so the Eagles could take a run with him and Jacob Lagace, who came over mid-season, and then unload Roy after that run (which scored them one post-season win against the eventual champs) back to Lewiston.

Olivier Roy was, to put it lightly, a sick monster for the Eagles for three seasons. He came in as a 16-year old, ran the train on the league and won rookie of the year, and was named to the CHL’s all-rookie team. He was an instant fan favourite, something that is easy to see now that he’s gone. He put together some incredible performances. His numbers may not support the beastly status I’m giving him, but he had the ability to take over a game and steal it. He had to on many occasions – the Eagles weren’t exactly a stacked team in his time there. Good players, yes, but they won games with a hard-nosed, hard-working mindset rather than one of finesse. They’ve always been the type of team that you cheer for, because they have heart and play a complete game, and their goaltender was the root of that.

Roy put another notch in his belt, another in his list of accomplishments in this league, on Sunday. After earning 94 wins in his three seasons with the Eagles, he recorded win number one hundred at “home”… against the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. He’s only the sixth goalie in league history to do so. By the end of the season, he’ll have the all-time shutout record, and 2nd place on the wins list, both accomplished, as win 100 was, wearing Titan colours. But in the eyes of Eagles fans, Roy’s junior home will always be Cape Breton, where he’ll soon become another name rattled off when talking about Cape Breton as a goalie factory, along with Marc-Andre Fleury and Ondrej Pavelec. Why he slipped to the Oilers in round five of the draft, I don’t know. I’m no talent scout, and certainly not for goalies, but this kid has something special, and it won’t be long before that becomes widely apparent.

He’s going to start for Canada at the World Juniors in Buffalo this year; a year too late, in my opinion, and in hindsight I’m sure many will agree. And even after that remarkable achievement against their own boys, and even after his return home on November 28th with his new teammates, the most heart wrenching time for Eagles fans may just begin on Boxing Day. It’s reminiscent of the story of another Roy; Halladay. When Olivier Roy pulls off an incredible post-to-post display of acrobatics, the announcers will remind us that he’s representing the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. If the team is good enough (because we sure as hell know he is) to return Canada to its golden glory in Buffalo, he won’t be accepting his medal as a member of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. And you’d best believe that’s going to sting.

I’m guilty of not seeing enough of Olivier Roy in the flesh during his time with the Eagles. I got to a few games, sure, and I certainly admired his work from a distance, but when he and the Titan roll into the Centre 200 on November 28th, I’ll be there, showing my appreciation for a lifetime Eagle, regardless of whatever achievements lay on the horizon with other teams.