After the marathon of the major-junior regular season and the relative sprint of the post-season, the Canadian Hockey League season finally culminates with the annual Mastercard Memorial Cup tournament. Contested annually since 1919, the Memorial Cup will be played for the 98th time this season – and the 34th time in its current format – the tournament pits the playoff champions of the three Canadian leagues and the host team in a round-robin battle for supremacy.
Here’s a quick look at the four teams vying for the Cup this year.
THE BRANDON WHEAT KINGS
Qualified as the Western Hockey League champions
Playoffs: beat Edmonton 4-2, Moose Jaw 4-1, Red Deer 4-1 and Seattle 4-1
Regular Season: 48-18-4-2, first place in WHL’s East Division
Leading Playoff Scorer: Nolan Patrick (13 goals, 17 assists)
Leading Regular Season Scorer: Jayce Hawryluk (47 goals, 59 assists)
Wheat Kings general manager and coach Kelly McCrimmon reportedly turned down an offer to join the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer, choosing to stick with the club that he’s run for over a decade. The reason? He thought the club was good enough to contend. Following a really impressive post-season run from his club, he’s looking like a really smart guy.
Led by 17-year-old wunderkind Nolan Patrick – the presumptive first overall pick for the 2017 NHL Draft – the Wheat Kings lost five games during the entire post-season en route to their first WHL championship crown since 1996. They beat the Seattle Thunderbirds in five games, eking out three 3-2 overtime wins in the process, but proved that they can go toe-to-toe with skilled, well-structured teams and dictate the pace in order to come out on top.
Arguably Brandon’s weakness is in net, as veteran Jordan Papirny isn’t a world-beater (though he’s quite effective). But they’ve managed to play a really high-tempo, cycle-based offensive game and can wear down a team (and a goalie) over time. With an offensive attack led by Patrick, New Jersey Devils pick John Quenneville and Florida Panthers prospect Jayce Hawryluk and a blueline group featuring 2016 draft-eligible Kale Clague and first round selection Ivan Provorov, the Wheaties have the talent to go to war with any club in junior hockey.
THE LONDON KNIGHTS
Qualified as the Ontario Hockey League champions
Playoffs: beat Owen Sound 4-2, Kitchener 4-0, Erie 4-0 and Niagara 4-0
Regular Season: 51-14-2-1, second place in OHL’s Midwest Division
Leading Playoff Scorer: Mitch Marner (16 goals, 28 assists)
Leading Regular Season Scorer: Christian Dvorak (52 goals, 69 assists)
The London Knights are a scary-good team. Over four rounds of the OHL playoffs, they lost twice, and both of those were really close games in the first round. Since then, the Knights have marched to the Memorial Cup through a trio of one-sided series.
It’s easy to see why the Knights are one of the favourites to take the Memorial Cup home. They have a bevy of draft-eligible talent (Matthew Tkachuk, Olli Juolevi, Cliff Pu and Tyler Parsons, among others) and a ton that have already been drafted (like Toronto’s Mitch Marner and Arizona’s Christian Dvorak). They have a really well-structured attack, masterminded by head coach Dale Hunter, and they have depth at every position. They’ve faced little adversity in the post-season, though, and if a team can really lean on them and physically impose upon them, they might not be able to respond.
That said, they’ve been good enough over the past season to not have to worry about that yet.
THE RED DEER REBELS
Qualified as the tournament hosts
Playoffs: beat Calgary 4-1, Regina 4-3, lost to Brandon 4-1
Regular Season: 45-24-1-2, second place in WHL’s Central Division
Leading Playoff Scorer: Adam Helewka (9 goals, 9 assists)
Leading Regular Season Scorer: Ivan Nikolishin (31 goals, 51 assists)
Brent Sutter’s club loaded up over the past season, adding players like Jake DeBrusk and Adam Helewka to complement homegrown players like Connor Bleackley and Haydn Fleury. The Rebels survived a tumultuous Central Division this season that saw five of six teams technically make the playoffs (Edmonton faced Medicine Hat in a tiebreaker game) and saw the runaway division winners from Lethbridge bow out in the opening round.
The Rebels hit a wall in the conference final round against the Wheat Kings, who were simply able to overrun the Rebels blueline and overwhelm Rylan Toth in net. Over a seven-game series, the Rebels are very beatable. But don’t count them out, as Sutter is a very savvy veteran coach who’s been preparing his club for this tournament since the fall and his charges will be fresh and amped up.
THE ROUYN-NORANDA HUSKIES
Qualified as the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champions
Playoffs: beat Drummondville 4-0, Blainville-Boisbriand 4-1, Moncton 4-2 and Shawinigan 4-1
Regular Season: 54-9-3-2, first place in QMJHL’s West Division
Leading Playoff Scorer: Francis Perron (12 goals, 21 assists)
Leading Regular Season Scorer: Francis Perron (41 goals, 67 assists)
In a tournament that features London, it’s pretty impressive that the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies are perhaps the scariest team in this tournament. They lost nine games in regulation this season and had a habit of going on extremely lengthy winning streaks. They were the Q’s best offensive team and second-best defensive team. They have a smart, balanced attack led by San Jose Sharks pick Timo Meier and Ottawa Senators prospect Francis Perron, and blueline group anchored by Boston Bruins pick Jeremy Lauzon and 2016 draft-eligible Jacob Neveu.
Their weakness is arguably in net, as overager Chase Marchard (on his third stop in the Q) isn’t showy. But with a team as good as the Huskies are, a “good enough” goalie has been more than good enough, and the Huskies haven’t really faced much adversity over the course of their season. They’re a team with few weaknesses, and if they’re able to continue to exert their will and play their style of game, they’re going to be very hard to beat.
PREDICTION: Rouyn-Noranda takes the Memorial Cup, beating London in the final.
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.