Clubs in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) are preparing to begin training camps for the 2020-21 season against a backdrop of uncertainty created by the novel coronavirus.
The Charlottetown Islanders announced Tuesday they’ve invited 31 players to their camp, which will convene on Aug. 30. That group includes 16 returnees from last year’s roster and summer additions Colten Ellis, Felix Tremblay, Jakub Brabenec and Matous Mensik, along with young prospects hoping to crack the roster.
Isles head coach and general manager Jim Hulton said the team would normally invite closer to 50 players, but kept the number low due to COVID-19 concerns.
Not Many Roster Spots Available
Charlottetown doesn’t have room for many 16 and 17-year-old newcomers. A strong returning nucleus means “spots are very limited,” Hulton said.
That’s particularly true on defense, where the quintet of Lukas Cormier, Noah Laaouan, Oscar Plandowski, William Trudeau and Anthony Hamel are all back. Hulton also acquired Tremblay to round out the top six. He expects 18-year-olds Ryan Maynard and Dell Welton to compete for the seventh spot. Maynard spent last season in midget AAA in Kapuskasing, Ont., while Welton played for the Junior A Truro Bearcats.
Hulton still wants to see those returning players work to earn their place, though. “I want to see some veterans challenged, guys from last year who have to step their game up. We want a highly competitive camp.”
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Anthony Hamel won’t start the season in the Islanders’ top four, but Hulton sees the potential for his game to take a leap forward as a sophomore.
“Hamel didn’t get a lot of fanfare last year. He was in and out of the lineup, but he’s an extremely hard worker. I’d like to see him be an everyday presence.”
On Thursday, the Islanders traded 16-year-old defenseman Angus Booth to the Shawinigan Cataractes for a second-round pick in 2022. Booth was Charlottetown’s fourth-round pick in this year’s draft.
The Islanders’ situation between the pipes is pretty cut-and-dried, with sophomore Jacob Goobie backing up Ellis. Chad Arsenault, who tended goal for the Junior A Valley Wildcats last season, has also been invited to camp.
Youthful Options on the Attack
There’s a little more opportunity to inject youth up front, where Hulton wants to see several returning forwards step up their offensive production. Youngsters who will battle for spots include Ben Boyd, Max Chisholm, Logan Costenaro, Alex Graham and Sam Oliver, among others.
Oliver was the Islanders’ top draft pick this year, taken 27th overall in the second round. The 16-year-old centre has produced at a high level in midget with Rothesay Netherwood in New Brunswick the past two seasons, including 26 goals and 48 points in 44 games in 2019-20.
“Sam’s got a very, very bright future,” Hulton said. “We expect him to step in and play a fairly significant role this year and be a key (player) down the road. We think he’s a Keith Getson type, the same mold, a 200-foot player who’s responsible.” Getson, also a centre, was a fan-favorite over five seasons in Charlottetown and grew into a major leadership role.
Boyd, who will turn 17 on Sunday, is listed at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, and Hulton said he’s not afraid to use his big frame after spending the last couple of years bulking up. “He’s a big body, adds skill in the lineup and plays with an edge. He’s a big north-south banger and crasher.”
Boyd posted 17 goals and 33 points with the Cole Harbour Wolfpack in the Nova Scotia midget ranks last season.
Costenaro, also 17, has a chance to make an offensive impact this year with his “significant poise,” Hulton said. The Montreal winger had 11 points in 12 games with the midget AAA Saint-Eustache Vikings, but spent most of the year in the Quebec espoir league for younger midget players. He recorded 17 goals and 30 points in 18 games for the Lanaudiere Pionniers.
Chisholm and Graham are both 2003-born P.E.I. natives who played midget AAA last year. Graham starred for the Kensington Wild with 26 goals and 51 points in 37 games, good enough for sixth in league scoring. Chisholm netted 9 goals and 23 points in 28 games with the Charlottetown Knights.
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“Graham and Chisholm had pretty impactful seasons with midget teams on the Island. We’re curious to see what they can do at a higher level,” Hulton said.
Hulton said Zac Beauregard, Drew Johnston and Patrick Leblanc are among the returning forwards he expects more offense out of. Leblanc particularly struggled with four points in 52 games as a rookie, but Hulton thinks he’ll find his form from midget AAA, where he piled up 74 points in 35 games with the Moncton Flyers in 2018-19.
“He had a really good summer in the gym. That translates to more offense.”
Will Czechs Be Allowed Into Canada?
Meanwhile, Hulton doesn’t know when import draft picks Jakub Brabenec and Matous Mensik will be able to enter the country, due to border restrictions during the pandemic. He said every team is facing that uncertainty with their Europeans and the QMJHL is working on the issue. Hulton hopes to have the Czech forwards in Charlottetown before the regular season starts.
“Brabenec and Mensik are easily top nine (forwards), maybe top six. If we have to start the year without them, it’ll be a bit iffy. Similar to the past, we’re going to have to be a four-line team, be really aggressive on the forecheck and create offense that way.”
Meanwhile, the QMJHL will have to do things differently this season, just like all sports leagues. A 60-game regular season will begin on Oct. 1, and the decision has already been made not to allow fans in Quebec arenas. That issue has not been settled yet for the Maritime teams.
However, all preseason games will be played in empty rinks and Hulton said that will take time to get used to. Charlottetown plays its first of six preseason games Sept. 1 in Moncton against the Wildcats.
“It’s going to be different. It’s probably helped watching the NHL bubble, in a strange way, getting accustomed to the look. Hockey in particular is an adrenaline game. Without crowds, we’re going to have to adjust and manufacture (intensity),” Hulton said.
“But the great part about kids this age is their adaptability.”
Josh Lewis may have grown up in Canada’s smallest province, but his impeccable writing skills and passion for hockey have turned heads on much bigger stages. He pursued his sports writing dreams in Western Canada, either winning or nominated for a slew of awards while covering junior hockey and many other sports. In roughly a decade in the industry, his work has drawn raves from colleagues, coaches and fans.
Josh is excited to join the THW team, covering the Philadelphia Flyers!