The puck is about to drop on the Memorial Cup in Quebec City, with the host Remparts taking on the WHL champion Kelowna Rockets in tonight’s tournament opener.
This 10-day showcase promises to be action-packed and will feature dozens of future NHLers, even if Connor McDavid isn’t among them. When it comes to the Memorial Cup — a 4-team national tournament pitting a host club against the QMJHL, OHL and WHL champs — there are always more questions than answers in terms of how the competition will stack up.
Granted, this year, two of the teams just faced off in a dramatic seven-game series for the QMJHL title, with the Rimouski Oceanic prevailing over the Remparts in double overtime of the deciding game. For a series that didn’t have much at stake besides bragging rights, they really slugged it out with the final 3 games all requiring overtime. So QMJHL followers have a very good idea what to expect when those teams meet again in Wednesday’s round-robin finale.
The OHL champion Oshawa Generals eliminated McDavid’s Erie Otters in convincing fashion, needing only 5 games to oust the projected first overall pick in next month’s NHL draft. That might make the Generals the early favourites, but the Rockets were just as dominant in the WHL, sweeping the regular-season champion Brandon Wheat Kings to capture the Ed Chynoweth Cup. Both Kelowna and Brandon were ranked among the CHL’s top 5 teams all season, so the Rockets are certainly peaking at the right time to make such short work of the Wheat Kings.
Kelowna enters the Memorial Cup on a 7-game winning streak, having previously won 3 straight against the Portland Winterhawks to end their 4-year reign as Western Conference champions. That series victory was key for Kelowna’s psyche, getting by a nemesis that had erased the Rockets from the post-season in 3 of those past 4 years. The momentum from that triumph has carried over, but anything can happen in a short tournament like this on the other side of the country, which is foreign territory to most of Kelowna’s players.
It has been a special run to this point, and having been along for the ride — covering the Rockets’ home games throughout the WHL playoffs, conducting interviews before and after — I wouldn’t bet against this team as they attempt to capture the WHL’s second consecutive Memorial Cup after the Edmonton Oil Kings brought it home from London, Ont., last year. Unfortunately, I’m not in attendance at Quebec City — my newspaper colleague and veteran Rockets beat writer Doyle Potenteau got that assignment — but I’ll be watching with great interest from afar.
For those not overly familiar with the Rockets, here is a brief run down of their roster:
Leon Draisaitl — the WHL playoff MVP has been a man among boys since getting sent back to junior by the Edmonton Oilers and subsequently acquired by the Rockets. He tied Portland’s Nic Petan as the WHL’s top post-season scorer, with 28 points in 19 games, including 10 goals with 3 of them shorthanded. His vision and playmaking ability is on another level amongst his peers, so anticipate plenty of amazing passes from the 3rd overall pick in the 2014 NHL draft.
Nick Merkley — a draft-eligible winger expected to be selected in the first round, he could be a riser based on his playoff performance, which included consecutive 3-point games against Brandon to finish just 1 point back of Petan and Draisaitl (5-22-27). Merkley is a bit undersized, but he might be the WHL’s next-best passer — behind Draisaitl — and he’s got excellent hockey sense with an edge to his game, reminding some of Boston’s Patrice Bergeron.
Rourke Chartier — a signed 5th-round pick (2014) of the San Jose Sharks, he’s looking like a steal in the midst of a breakout campaign after leading Kelowna in goal-scoring in the regular season (48) as well as the playoffs (13). A two-way centre that shifted to the wing — alongside Draisaitl and Merkley — after returning from injury against Brandon, Chartier is the kind of complete 200-foot player that coaches love. Notably, that trio hadn’t played a single shift together at even-strength until midway through the first period of Game 2 in the WHL championship series, but they have factored into 11 of Kelowna’s 13 goals since then.
Justin Kirkland — a 3rd-round pick (2014) of the Nashville Predators, he’s been playing further down the depth chart after missing a couple months to injury leading into the playoffs. He’s got a pro-calibre shot and can play a power game when healthy, but may not be at his best for this tournament.
Tyrell Goulbourne — a signed 3rd-round pick (2013) of the Philadelphia Flyers, this over-age winger who spent most the season on Kelowna’s top line with Merkley and Chartier may miss the Memorial Cup. He’s sidelined week-to-week after suffering a freak leg injury against Portland when an opposing player’s skate blade sliced his calf. Goulbourne is a scrappy energy player that could probably hold his own in Quebec’s infamous Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey (LNAH). He was still limping gingerly during the on-ice celebrations after beating Brandon, so it’s possible Goulbourne’s played his last junior game. But that was 10 days ago and he’s a tough customer with a high pain tolerance, so there’s a chance he could suit up in Quebec City.
Tyson Baillie — this undrafted 19-year-old led the WHL playoffs with 5 game-winning goals, including an overtime winner against Portland that gave Kelowna the upper hand in that series. His size and skating have held him back in the eyes of scouts, but his heart and determination have continued to push him forward on the ice. Don’t be surprised if he scores more big goals for Kelowna on the biggest stage.
Dillon Dube — this 16-year-old rookie came on strong throughout the WHL playoffs, becoming an impact player against Portland and Brandon after sitting out a game as a healthy scratch against Victoria. He’s been centering the second line with Baillie and they’ve become a source of secondary scoring, which enabled the Rockets to load up their first line. Dube battled injuries for the first couple months of the season, but Kelowna’s 1st-round pick (21st overall) from the 2013 bantam draft is really hitting his stride now.
Gage Quinney — the third member of that second line, Quinney has taken Kirkland’s spot in the lineup and exceeded all expectations by producing 13 points (6 goals, 7 assists) in 15 playoff games. He was a throw-in from Prince Albert in the first of Kelowna’s two blockbuster trades with the Raiders, but Quinney’s been a pleasant surprise since joining the Rockets in December. His dad, Ken Quinney, played in the NHL for the Quebec Nordiques and is now a firefighter in Las Vegas.
Cole Linaker — an unsung hero for the Rockets, centering their checking line and taking several key defensive-zone face-offs, though Draisaitl and Chartier are also strong in the circle. Linaker is one of those “glue” guys for Kelowna, a guy you might not notice on the scoresheet every night, but he’s a big part of this team’s success.
Tomas Soustal — a streaky European with size, he’s not afraid to throw his weight around and possesses a decent offensive skill-set too. He’s made strides throughout the season in adjusting to the North American game, but still struggles with consistency at times. When he’s on his game, Soustal can be a threat. He’s draft eligible, so he’ll want to make an impression at the Memorial Cup to improve his chances of getting picked.
Chance Braid — brought in at the trade deadline to provide some muscle, this over-ager has been as advertised in a depth role. He plays a heavy game and has a high hockey IQ that allows him to be in the right place at the right time to score some opportunistic — well, garbage — goals.
Rodney Southam — another role-playing grinder who was acquired early in the season to add size and sandpaper to the bottom-six, which he has done.
Riley Stadel — a converted defenceman, his versatility has been an asset all season as he’s bounced around the depth chart. Early on, he was quarterbacking the power play and putting up points, which speaks to his good puck skills. Prior to Draisaitl joining Merkley and Chartier, Stadel had a brief stint flanking them in the playoffs. Lately, he’s been lost in the shuffle a bit, adjusting to new linemates again with Kirkland and either Soustal or Southam.
Josh Morrissey — a signed 1st-round pick (2013) of the Winnipeg Jets, he was the other prized acquisition from Prince Albert and really solidified Kelowna’s back end. He’s been hobbled by a lingering leg injury throughout playoffs, but still produced at a point-per-game clip — 14 points (2g, 12a) in 13 games — including a 5-point outburst in the series-clincher against Victoria. Morrissey posted a series-best plus-9 rating against Brandon and has been just as impressive defensively as offensively. He’s pro-ready and will push for a spot in Winnipeg next season.
Madison Bowey — a signed 2nd-round pick (2013) of the Washington Capitals, he’s captained the Rockets for the past two seasons and paired with Morrissey to win world-junior gold for Canada in January. They play apart for Kelowna, but are both dominant at this level. The world juniors were a coming-out party for Bowey, who skates like the wind and has a booming shot from the point. With Mike Green likely leaving Washington as an unrestricted free agent, Bowey might be able to fill that role as early as next season.
Joe Gatenby — who? Get to know this name as he could be a big riser for next month’s draft, an all-around defender that is earning more and more responsibility on the Rockets’ blue-line. He was on the ice for a shorthanded situation in the last minute of a one-goal game against Brandon, which is very telling in itself. He’s a cerebral player who was a finalist for WHL scholastic player of the year — thanks to his 99 per cent in Grade 12 physics — and was also named the hardest working player in the entire league this season.
Cole Martin — speaking of workhorses, he’s Mr. Reliable as a shutdown defender. Nothing flashy, but very effective in a thankless role. This over-ager from Texas has led the WHL in plus-minus over the last 2 seasons at a combined plus-105, edging out Portland’s Oliver Bjorkstrand (plus-104). Martin partners with Morrissey to form Kelowna’s top pairing at even strength.
Devante Stephens — another draft-eligible blue-liner who was named most improved player and rookie of the year at Kelowna’s annual awards banquet following the regular season. Paired with Bowey for much of the season — and reunited in recent playoff rounds — Stephens is a smooth skater that may have some untapped offensive upside in the years to come.
Lucas Johansen — the younger brother of Columbus Blue Jackets centre Ryan Johansen, he’s not draft eligible until 2016 because of a late birthday, but has certainly caught the attention of scouts with his steady play. One longtime WHL scout told me he sees shades of Brent Seabrook, who blossomed with the Lethbridge Hurricanes before going on to stardom with the Chicago Blackhawks. Johansen has gotten bigger and better over the course of this season, exuding confidence alongside Gatenby throughout the playoffs in forming a young but trustworthy pairing. They are similar players who take care of their own end first and foremost.
Mitch Wheaton — a 5th-round pick (2013) of the Detroit Red Wings, he’s been a healthy scratch for much of Keowna’s playoff run, including all 4 games of the WHL final against Brandon. In his defence, the hulking defenceman has undergone two shoulder surgeries and isn’t up to speed after only playing 4 regular-season games this season. Given those circumstances, Wheaton’s actually performed quite admirably in the 9 post-season games he’s played, using his size and reach effectively. The down side of being scratched now is the fact he still needs to be signed by Detroit, which appears unlikely and means he’ll probably re-enter next month’s draft.
Jackson Whistle — an undrafted netminder who turns 20 next month, he’s tied a franchise record with four playoff shutouts but has also been pulled four times to this point in the post-season. Much like Kelly Guard in 2004, Whistle’s success has largely been a product of the team in front of him, but he was solid against Brandon and outplayed his counterpart, Jordan Papirny, throughout that series. Whistle hails from West Kelowna and is one of two locals on the Rockets’ roster, along with Gatenby, though both were born elsewhere. Gatenby’s family moved to Kelowna from Calgary a few years ago, while Whistle settled in 2004 but previously lived in various locations around the world with his dad, Dave, a former professional player and coach.
Michael Herringer — another well-travelled player who was born in Haiti of all places and has bounced around the junior ranks with WHL stops in Victoria and Saskatoon before securing a backup role in Kelowna. He got the nickname ‘The Closer’ during the WHL playoffs after replacing Whistle in the series-clinching games against Tri-City, Victoria and Portland. Herringer, 19, has been a great find for the Rockets, who brought him in before Christmas when Whistle and youngster Jake Morrissey — Josh’s brother — were battling injuries. Herringer made the most of that opportunity, supplanting Morrissey, and has posted stellar statistics whenever called upon.
Dan Lambert — nominated for WHL coach of the year, this rookie bench boss has done a masterful job in ensuring the Rockets reached their potential this season. Lambert was an assistant coach under Ryan Huska in Kelowna the previous 5 years and credits him for much of his development, but Lambert’s certainly earned his own stripes too. As a player, Lambert won a Memorial Cup and was named tournament MVP in 1989 with the Swift Current Broncos, then went on to play 29 NHL games with the Quebec Nordiques, so this is a homecoming of sorts for him. The former offensive defenceman is also bilingual, which will serve him well on many fronts in this tournament. Assistant coaches Kris Mallette and Travis Crickard are newcomers to Kelowna’s staff, but have proven to be valuable additions.
Bruce Hamilton — nominated for WHL executive of the year, he also donned a gold medal as part of the management group for Canada’s world-junior team. Hamilton went all-in on this Rockets team, trading a first-round bantam draft pick for the first time in his 24 years of managerial experience, but he’s reaping the rewards of that move thanks to Draisaitl’s impact in putting Kelowna over the top.
Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.