The Charlottetown Islanders have generally been a skill-first team in recent years, and while they still have a talented group, the club hopes to be tougher to play against this season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
With a very strong returning defensive corps, head coach and general manager Jim Hulton says adding more grit was a big factor in setting the team’s 21-man roster.
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“We’re specific in our needs this year,” Hulton told THW. “With a lot of returning players, there’s not as many openings. Size and physicality were the focus.”
Bigger, Stronger After Extended OffSeason
When the remainder of the QMJHL season was called off in March, the silver lining for the players was extra time to work out, with no recovery time needed from playing games. As a result, Hulton said many returning players arrived at camp with more bulk.
“The flip side to not playing (the full season) is these kids are in great shape. They’ve had even longer to train in the gym. You start to see the strength and the weight gain. It’s an extra six weeks in the gym if guys used it properly.”
Hulton singled out defender Oscar Plandowski, who enters his draft year “visibly stronger and thicker” after bulking up to 190 pounds. The Islanders also added some toughness in 6-foot-3 defenseman Felix Tremblay and big rookie winger Ben Boyd, 17, who’s expected to make a physical impact after getting a brief call-up with the Islanders last season. Listed at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, the Nova Scotia native had 33 points in 35 midget games in 2019-20.
“Ben Boyd was a kid we had given a trial run to last year and had penciled in,” Hulton said. “He’s a big, robust physical winger. We want to keep adding size and physicality to the lineup.”
In other words, as Hulton told local media last season, ““It’s that big body and a willingness to knock guys on their ass that we really like.” (‘A look at Charlottetown Islanders prospects,’ The Guardian, Dec. 6, 2019)
Mental toughness will also be required to weather the opening stretch of the regular season. The Islanders will play their first six games on the road, just like all their preseason games. Their home opener isn’t until Oct. 23 against the Saint John Sea Dogs.
Seeking Sources of Secondary Scoring
Among the last cuts at forward were 17-year-old Logan Costenaro and P.E.I. natives Alex Graham and Max Chisholm, 17 and 16 respectively. Costenaro was then traded to the Rimouski Oceanic for a ninth-round pick in 2022 – the same round in which Charlottetown selected him in the 2020 draft.
“Because of COVID, we can’t use Quebec boys as affiliates with the (14-day) quarantine in effect. (Costenaro) was not far off making our lineup. Another season with more traditional openings, he might’ve been here,” Hulton said.
Like every other team, the Islanders continue to wait for the federal government to resolve the issue of European imports – forwards Jakub Brabenec and Matous Mensik, in their case – being able to travel to Canada. They signed Newfoundland native Brendan McCarthy for depth up front in the meantime. The 19-year-old had 22 points in 60 games with the Hawkesbury Hawks in Ontario Junior A last season. The club needed a 12th forward and Hulton said he preferred an older option to throwing in a recent draft pick.
“We’ve got depth. The key is going to be the progression of players from one year to the next, but we also need production out of (Zac) Beauregard and (Drew) Johnston, who are 19 now,” Hulton said. “(Brett) Budgell, (Thomas) Casey, (Cedric) Desruisseaux, they’ll bring it, but we need some of that push from underneath.”
Cedric Desruisseaux a Focal Point on Offense
The Islanders are certainly seeing progression from 18-year-old Patrick LeBlanc, who struggled to produce offense last season but has put up two goals and eight points through four preseason games, which the Islanders have split at two wins, two losses. “It’s nice to see LeBlanc get on the scoresheet fairly consistently and create some confidence for himself,” Hulton said. He added 2020 second-round pick Sam Oliver has had a strong camp, bringing a heavy shot and high hockey IQ.
Desruisseaux, 20, will look to improve on his 40-point season of a year ago and Hulton said he’s looked excellent in the exhibition games so far. “Desruisseaux has been lights out since the drop of the puck. On night one, he was our best player and he hasn’t really let off. He looks even more confident. He had a rough first half last year but got his confidence back late and he’s picked up where he left off,” Hulton said. “He’s skating extremely well and his shot looks to have improved.”
Charlottetown scored 19 goals in a pair of road wins over the Acadie-Bathurst Titan on Sept. 11 and Sept. 20. While Hulton said he doesn’t put much stock in preseason, that helped assuage any concerns about where the goals will come from. The coach added he’s happy with what he’s seen from both power-play units. No line combinations are set in stone yet.
Lukas Cormier Leads Bulky Defense Corps
The Islanders knew defense would be their biggest strength this season, and it helps when a strong top four comes back heavier after a big summer in the gym. Hulton said Plandowski, 2020 NHL Draft prospect Lukas Cormier, Noah Laaouan and William Trudeau have all added muscle over the offseason.
“Our top four D has been as advertised,” Hulton said. “Cormier is bigger, faster, stronger. Laaouan had a big summer. You see the results on the ice.”
Charlottetown was in the unique position of already having all six starting defensemen penciled into the lineup when training camp began, with Tremblay and gritty sophomore Anthony Hamel on the third pair. But there was one spot available and Ryan Maynard grabbed it with a strong preseason. The 18-year-old put up well over a point per game in his last two seasons of midget AAA with the Kapuskasing Flyers in northern Ontario. In fact, he was named league MVP in 2019-20.
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“Maynard has been a nice find from the free-agent market, a 6-foot-3 kid who can skate,” Hulton said. “He’s a kid that came with offensive pedigree. He scored 27 goals as a defenseman. It’s obvious he thinks the game well offensively – that was evident our first (two games) in Moncton when he scored two goals. He’s got natural instincts, skates well for a big kid. He’s raw and has a lot to learn in terms of the day-to-day intensity it takes to be successful, but I think his learning curve will be quick.”
There’s plenty of uncertainty in the QMJHL this season due to COVID-19, but the Islanders, like the other 17 clubs, are raring to hit the ice for real and see what they’ve got. Newly acquired starting goalie Colten Ellis will get his first test in the season opener against the Moncton Wildcats on Oct. 2.