While most of the hockey world is focused on the NHL playoff races and the daily changes within each conference, there is more than just the pro game to excite hockey fans. This week marks the start of the Canadian Hockey League playoffs, where teams from the three major junior leagues across Canada (WHL, OHL, QMJHL) will compete to win their respective league titles and ultimately represent them at the Mastercard Memorial Cup, held this year in Shawinigan, Quebec.
With the three leagues separate of each other it’s always hard to predict just who the best junior team in the country. The CHL does its best with their regular top ten CHL rankings, and let’s face it, more often than not in junior hockey the best teams usually do come through in the end. We often see the favourites, or teams with highly ranked NHL prospects when Memorial Cup time rolls around, but each year there is a surprise or storyline that no one sees coming. It is the great game of hockey and teams are only an injury away from being out of it or a momentum swing away from upset. That, as they say, is why they play the games.
Here are my top 10 contenders for this year’s Memorial Cup.
Medicine Hat Tigers, WHL (42-24-2-4)
The Tigers boast the top goal scorer in major junior hockey in Emerson Etem, who had 61 goals this year, the first WHL player to do so in over ten years. They also have arguably the WHL’s top goaltender in Tyler Bunz, the Edmonton Oilers draft pick who recently just signed his first pro contract. If Etem goes on a tear and Bunz steals a few games the Tigers have a chance.
10. Ottawa 67′s, OHL (40-20-5-3)
The 67′s have plenty of firepower up front with one of the league’s most dangerous snipers in captain Tyler Toffoli, Shane Prince and Sean Monahan and one of the OHL’s best young rearguards in Cody Ceci. They also have Czech goaltender Petr Mrazek between the pipes who showed at the WJC in Alberta that he capable of winning games on his own. The 67′s are scuffling coming into the playoffs however, going 4-5-1 in their last 10.
9. Sarnia Sting, OHL (34-27-2-5)
Sarnia is a bit of a wild card coming into the OHL playoffs. They have the potential to be the most exciting team going and have the ability to score with anyone. The problem is that they have not iced a full roster all year and health is again a question mark entering the playoffs. They have the most dynamic player in junior hockey and probable #1 pick in Nail Yakupov, and they are expected to have both he and fellow 2012 draftee Alex Galchenyuk in the lineup for game 1. Add that to leading scorer Charles Sarault and deadline pickup Ryan Spooner and the Sting could be dangerous. Other deadline pickup JP Anderson also provides stability in goal. Having everyone healthy for a playoff run may be more than the Sting can hope for, but if they do watch out.
8. Portland Winterhawks, WHL (49-19-3-1)
The top scoring team in the WHL, Portland lost arguably their best player in Sven Bartschi on an emergency recall to the Calgary Flames, but luckily for ‘Hawks fans he is back to start the playoffs. Bartschi averaged 2.00 points per game, best in the league, and will be counted on heavily. There is also leading scorer Ty Rattie who had 57 goals and 121 points on the year, and Leafs pick Brad Ross with 82 points who round out possibly the top trio in the WHL. Portland is also solid on the backend with Joe Morrow and Derrick Pouliot and could be a popular pick in the WHL.
7. London Knights, OHL (49-18-0-1)
The top team in the OHL with 99 points, London is a strong team from the goaltender out. Michael Houser was among the league leaders in most goaltending categories and with Jared Tinordi, Scott Harrington and Olli Maata have one of the deeper defence corps. They are no slouches up front either with seven forwards scoring 20 goals or more. They added OHL stars Greg McKegg and Austin Watson at the trade deadline to a forward group that already included leading scorer Seth Griffith, Vladislav Namestnikov, Jared Knight and rookie sensation Max Domi. Even with all their firepower they have struggled to put the puck in the net recently and a few of their top scorers have gone dry over the last number of games. They will need at least a couple of their stars to step up and spark the offence if they want to make a run at the Memorial Cup.
6. Tri-City Americans, WHL (50-18-2-2)
Possibly the best two way team in the CHL, the Americans had four players in the top six for plus/minus leaders in the WHL. Top scorer Brendan Shinnimin not only tied for the league lead with a +45 but also lead the league in scoring with 134 points. While not getting as many headlines as some of the other top teams, Tri-City has been consistent all year and plays one of the most solid team games in all of junior hockey.
5. Plymouth Whalers, OHL (47-18-2-1)
One of the hottest teams coming into the playoffs at 9-1 in their last ten, Plymouth was one of the favourites coming into the year and they haven’t disappointed. Falling only 2 points behind OHL leading London, the Whalers were one of only two teams in the OHL not to make a deal at the trade deadline, they like their team that much. What’s not to like, they have Canadian WJC goaltender Scott Wedgewood providing stability, top forwards in Stefan Noesen, JT Miller and Richard Rakell and a very solid defence group led by captain Beau Schmitz. They will hope to continue their strong play all the way to Shawinigan.
4. Shawinigan Cataractes, QMJHL (45-16-3-4)
The only team on this list that knows they will be particpating in the Memorial Cup, Shawinigan comes in as the host team. The Cataractes did not let the fact they have a guaranteed spot lull them into complacency. They were one of the most active teams in the Q solidifying their defence corps dealing for one of the better offensive D-men in the league in Morgan Reilly as well as Jonathan Narbonne. They also acquired arguably the best overall defensemen in junior hockey in Brandon Gormley from the Moncton Wildcats. They are added to a strong forward group that includes Michael Bournival, Kirill Kabanov and Anton Zlobin which makes them not only a participant but one of the favourites at the Memorial Cup.
3. Niagara IceDogs, OHL (47-18-0-3)
One of the favourites heading into the season and a team that has gotten a lot of exposure this year, the ‘Dogs remain a heavy favourite to win the OHL Championship and be their representative at the Memorial Cup. Niagara has plenty of junior stars including the quintet of players that represented Canada at the WJC, including the league’s best goaltender in Mark Visentin, Ryan Strome, Dougie and Freddie Hamilton and mid-season pickup Jamie Oleksiak; not to mention leading scorer Andrew Agozzino. They certainly have the talent to go all the way, now they just have to go out and prove it.
2. Edmonton Oil Kings, WHL (50-15-3-4)
Coming into the playoffs as the top team in the WHL, and the entire CHL for that matter, with 107 points, Edmonton is in the playoffs for the third time in their short five year history. Boasting a very balanced attack and efficiency at both ends of the ice, they will be the team to beat in the WHL. Ranking second in offence with 310 goals for, and second in defence with 193 against, there are very few weaknesses in the Oil Kings game. They have a top netminder in Laurent Brossoit, strong D led by Canadian WJC member Mark Pysyk, Martin Gernat and potential top ten draft pick Griffin Reinhart, and an offence that had seven players with 20 or more goals. Their offence was lead by 105 point man Michael St. Croix but are a deep lineup that relies on its depth. The Oil Kings are also hot going into the playoffs riding an 11 game winning streak.
1. Saint John Sea Dogs, QMJHL (50-15-0-3)
Last year’s Memorial Cup Champions are once against the favourite to win it all and its hard to argue they aren’t better this year than last year. Among their returning members are last year’s MVP Jonathan Huberdeau, who is possibly the best player in all of junior hockey, Nathan Beaulieu, Tomas Jurco, Zack Phillips and Stanislav Galiev, just to name a few. Combine that with the emergence of 47 goal man and leading scorer Danick Gauthier and the addition of top prospect Charlie Coyle from Boston University, and the Sea Dogs are a loaded group. They did lose top defenceman Simon Depres and the leadership of captain Mike Thomas but the addition of offensive defenceman of Charles-Olivier Roussel in the offseason and another year of maturity from Beaulieu should go a long way in making up the difference on the backend. Another year of progression from their top forwards and Coyle in the mix, and its hard to imagine anyone else being the favourite in Shawinigan to hoist the trophy.
Follow Carl on twitter @maloney3383 for more articles.