The Charlottetown Islanders are two years removed from back-to-back playoff runs to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League semifinals, and after two seasons of competitive retooling, they hope to return there in 2020-21.
When the QMJHL regular season was suspended in March, the Islanders owned the seventh-best record in the league despite half their roster being comprised of 16- and 17-year-olds.
Head coach and general manager Jim Hulton says they were playing their best hockey when COVID-19 struck. They would have faced the Cape Breton Eagles in the first round of the playoffs.
“They were a very formidable opponent, but I thought we were ready for the challenge,” Hulton told THW.
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The pandemic has created uncertainty for every hockey league, but particularly for junior leagues, which are much more gate-driven than professional circuits. Hulton said there are still “way more questions right now than answers.”
Changing of the Guard in Net
That being said, he’s been busy in the GM role reshaping the Islanders’ roster for next season. The biggest transaction of the summer came on June 6, when Hulton acquired St. Louis Blues goalie prospect Colten Ellis from the Rimouski Oceanic for a third-round pick in 2020 along with first and second-rounders in 2021.
Ellis will take over from graduating netminder Matthew Welsh, who has rewritten the Islanders’ record books over the past five seasons and set a new QMJHL mark for minutes played this spring. Welsh owns an all-time record of 125-76-10 for Charlottetown and leaves a lasting legacy between the pipes and in the community.
“I think probably his impact, as crazy as it sounds, might have been bigger off the ice than on the ice,” Hulton said. “He used his status as a junior player to make the community better. I don’t think you ever replace him, but hope his legacy lives on.”
Welsh won the QMJHL’s scholastic player of the year award in 2018-19 and was nominated again this past season.
Hulton said he believes Ellis is definitely capable of filling the void in the crease. The Antigonish, N.S., native posted a 2.41 goals-against average and .904 save percentage last season for Rimouski, and owned a career-high .913 SV% in his rookie season in 2017-18.
“Ellis, in our opinion, is the best goalie in the league,” Hulton said. “(The impact) is enormous, the old adage, good goalies make good coaches. We’ve been fortunate enough to have similar ones around these parts. I think Colten continues that legacy.”
He said Ellis will also be able to mentor Jacob Goobie, the Isles’ 17-year-old backup, which could “really, really pay big dividends” in the future.
The Islanders’ other big strength is on the blueline, where the returning quartet of Lukas Cormier, Noah Laaouan, Oscar Plandowski and William Trudeau will make up the top four. All of them have multiple years of eligibility remaining.
Cormier Compared to Torey Krug
“I honestly believe our top four is as good as anybody in the league. Maybe they don’t have the flash and dash and hype of some forwards, but I’d put them up against anyone on a regular basis,” Hulton said.
Cormier, who will be taken in the 2020 NHL Draft, has turned heads as a slick offensive rearguard in his first two QMJHL seasons with 21 goals and 72 points in 107 games. THW’s Josh Bell has him ranked 25th in his final list.
“Cormier had an unbelievable underage season. He was a fourth overall pick (in the Q draft) but you don’t necessarily expect him to come in and be as impactful as he was,” Hulton said. “He almost set the bar so high, it was impossible to meet the standards in year two.”
The New Brunswick native was enjoying an excellent draft year when he broke his foot blocking a shot in October (from ‘Charlottetown Islanders up to challenge after losing dynamic defenceman Lukas Cormier to injury,’ The Guardian, Oct. 22, 2019). He missed 15 games and it took about that many more to regain his trademark mobility.
“This kid’s a stud,” Hulton said. “He’ll probably be the best offensive defenseman in our league for the next couple of years.”
The Islanders bench boss went so far as to compare Cormier with Torey Krug of the Boston Bruins.
“As he’s approaching (age) 20, converting from boy strength to man strength, his ability to see the ice, move and skate the puck, power play prowess (will stand out). Ideally he fits where the game is heading in general.”
On Aug. 3, Hulton acquired stay-at-home defenseman Felix Tremblay from the Baie-Comeau Drakkar in exchange for right-winger Max-Antoine Melancon. Tremblay, 18, owns a 6-foot-3, 203-pound frame and will fit in on the third pairing, Hulton said.
“We just wanted a steady veteran presence. We’ve got the luxury of having a pretty talented defense corps, especially our top four,” Hulton said, adding Tremblay excels on the penalty kill and blocking shots.
Charlottetown did lose captain Brendon Clavelle, who was an overager last season. Hulton described him as a “steadying force” on the back end and penalty kill who mentored younger blueliners.
Monster Season Expected for Budgell
On offense, the Isles will lose Blues prospect Nikita Alexandrov, their leading scorer in 2019-20. That means Newfoundland sniper Brett Budgell will be a focal point of the attack next season. The left-winger scored 24 goals and 49 points in 64 games last season and is entering his 19-year-old year.
“Budgell’s going to have a huge impact on the team. I’m probably not speaking out of turn, he’s a likely candidate for our captaincy,” Hulton said. “He’s a mainstay on the first power play unit, penalty killer, a little bit of everything.”
After first-half struggles in 2018-19 led to Budgell not being drafted, Hulton said his confidence grew greatly this past season.
“He’s got a very big, big year coming. Brett’s going to get NHL attention before all’s said and done. He’s adding layers to his game in terms of offense, a physical dimension, and he’s got the ability to play at a whole new level.”
Other major contributors up front will include overagers Thomas Casey, a P.E.I. native who broke out for 26 goals and 47 points last year, and centre Cedric Desruisseaux, who posted 40 points in 56 contests.
Infusion of Scoring From Europe
Charlottetown also added two Czech forwards in the CHL Import Draft in Jakub Brabenec and Matous Mensik. Brabenec can play centre or wing, while Mensik is primarily a right-winger. Brabenec racked up 50 points in 34 games between HC Kometo Brno’s U16 and U20 teams last season and also played two games in the Czech Extraliga, one of only five 16-year-olds to do so.
Mensik, who stands 6-foot-2, put up 16 points in 34 games with Karpat Oulu’s U18 team in Finland. Both forwards won bronze with the Czech Republic at the 2019 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
The Islanders have been able to retool without going through painful years of losing – they made the playoffs in 2018-19 and would have last season – and Hulton said ownership expressed that goal to him when they added the GM title to his duties in 2016.
“(They said) we’re not in a market to sustain a massive load-up that follows with a drop-down and a couple years to dig out. We strive to be like the Boston Bruins – make the playoffs every year, be one of five or six teams in the hunt for a title on a yearly basis.”
He added the Isles were fortunate to have Welsh in net throughout the process and also got lots of leadership from defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph and centre Keith Getson.
When the QMJHL will begin the 2020-21 season, and whether fans will be in the arenas, is still up in the air. But one thing is certain: Charlottetown is primed to contend again.