The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season is right around the corner as summer draws to a close and NHL rookie camps are underway. Junior-aged players will soon begin to be re-assigned to their respective Canadian Hockey League clubs where they will kick-off their 2016-17 campaigns in the coming days. The first puck drop of the QMJHL season is scheduled to take place on Thursday, Sept. 22 when the defending President Cup champion Rouyn-Noranda Huskies take on the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada.
We’ll take a closer look at the fast approaching season as we preview each of the QMJHL’s three divisions by highlighting each teams’ top-five key players and season expectations. This is the first installment in the three-part series and will focus on Maritimes Division.
Key Players: Antoine Morand, Christophe Boivin, Vladimir Kuznetsov, Jeffrey Truchon-Viel, Reilly Pickard
Season Expectations: The Acadie-Bathurst Titan possess a lot of firepower this season and will likely feature in more than their fair share of high scoring games. The attack will be led by projected first-round 2017 NHL draft prospect Antoine Morand, last year’s leading scorer Christophe Boivin, and the first overall pick in the 2015 CHL Import Draft, Vladimir Kuznetsov. In addition to this trio, the Titan should also receive plenty of secondary scoring from the likes of Jonathan Bourcier, Jeffrey Truchon-Viel, Daniil Miromanov, and Jordan Maher.
The backend for the Titan will be defense-by-committee as they possess solid depth but lack a true number one defender. Last year’s number one defenseman and team captain Guillaume Brisebois (VAN) was traded during the offseason but one of the players Bathurst received in return, Luc Deschenes, will help fill the void he created. The rest of the cast will be made up of a mixture of veterans like Nicolas Dumolong and Elijah Francis and rookies like import pick Igor Galygin and 2016 sixth overall QMJHL draft pick Noah Dobson.
— Acadie-Bathurst Titan (@ABTitan) March 23, 2016
As far as goaltending goes, it is Reilly Pickard’s crease to lose. The 18-year-old is returning for his third year in the QMJHL and his second year as an undisputed starting goalie. The former 38th overall pick in the QMJHL draft played in 58 regular season games a year ago and sported a respectable .902 save percentage. He will be backed up by rookie free agent signing Danil Timchenko who isn’t likely to see much game action.
Cape Breton Screaming Eagles
Key Players: Pierre-Luc Dubois, Giovanni Fiore, Vasili Glotov, Phelix Martineau, Olivier Leblanc
Season Expectations: The Cape Breton Screaming Eagles look to be poised for a long year and that may become even more evident if top player Pierre-Luc Dubois (CBJ) sticks around with the Columbus Blue Jackets. In the event that Dubois is returned to junior, the most likely scenario is that he will be traded to a top contender in return for a king’s ransom which should help accelerate Cape Breton’s rebuilding process.
The Screaming Eagles lost a good chunk of their offensive production from a year ago as gone are Evgeni Svechnikov (DET), Maxim Lazarev, Michael Joly, and Clark Bishop (CAR). They should, however, still have an excellent trio of overage players this year which could include scorers Giovanni Fiore and Massimo Carozza.
Cape Breton made a curious selection in the import draft when they selected 19-year-old Buffalo Sabres’ draft pick Vasili Glotov but the Russian has reported to the team so the pick could end up being a homerun for at least one season. Other players who could see top-six minutes with the team this year include sparkplug Phelix Martineau and breakout candidate Peyton Hoyt.
On the backend, Cape Breton should have at least one top defenseman in former Saint John Sea Dogs captain and Blue Jackets’ draft pick Olivier Leblanc or in overage defender Duncan MacIntyre. The former may get an AHL deal which would cement the latter’s spot on the team but if Leblanc does return then he will definitely occupy one of the three 20-year-old spots on the team. Also included in the defensive group are veteran Tobie Paquette-Bisson and German import Leon Gawanke.
Cape Breton’s goaltending tandem enters the year with a total of 13 games of QMJHL experience. The young duo of 17-year-old Kyle Jessiman and 16-year-old Kevin Mandolese are solid prospects but may be better suited with a veteran presence around to help pick them up when the team inevitably struggles. Confidence can be a major stumbling block in a young goaltender’s development.
Key Players: Daniel Sprong, Filip Chlapik, Kameron Kielly, Guillaume Brisebois, Cody Donaghey
Season Expectations: Historically, the Charlottetown Islanders have perpetually found themselves as a middle of the pack team who have had a lot of difficulty taking that next step into the league’s elite. The Islanders have a new General Manager to start the 2016-17 season and they hope that with new management comes new success.
Charlottetown suffered a huge blow early in the offseason when their best player, Daniel Sprong (PIT), underwent shoulder surgery in June that now has him sidelined for a total of seven or eight months. There’s also no guarantee that Sprong will join the Islanders when healthy as there’s always the possibility that he sees more time in Pittsburgh with the Penguins considering he made the NHL team out of training camp last year.
Minus Sprong, the Charlottetown lineup will rely on veterans Filip Chlapik (OTT), Kameron Kielly (PIT), Jake Coughler, and Mitchell Balmas to carry the load up front while younger forwards such as Shawn Boudrias, Carl Gervais or even Keith Getson could have more to offer offensively.
Defenders Brisebois (VAN) and Cody Donaghey (OTT) have all the makings of a very capable top-pairing in what will likely serve as the strength of the Charlottetown team. The pair is supported by returnees Will Thompson and Pierre-Olivier Joseph as well as intriguing rookie import Saku Vesterinen.
In net, the Islanders are giving the reigns to 17-year-old incumbent Matthew Welsh following the graduation of Mason MacDonald (CGY) to the pros. Welsh put up good numbers in the league as a 16-year-old and will look to make a name for himself in what is his NHL draft season. Backing up Welsh will be the player with maybe the coolest name in all of hockey, 19-year-old Blade Mann-Dixon.
Key Players: Maxime Fortier, Nico Hischier, Otto Somppi, Benoit-Olivier Groulx, Jared McIsaac
Season Expectations: One thing for certain is that the Halifax Mooseheads will have an extremely young team when they kick-off their 2016-17 season. Halifax will also have a new coach as long-time bench boss Dominique Ducharme left the team to be closer to home and was replaced by former Avalanche and Senators Assistant Coach and long-time QMJHL GM/Head Coach Andre Tourigny.
The team is not expected to finish near the top of the league’s standings but there’s still a lot of excitement among the Mooseheads’ fanbase. That excitement can be credited to the fact that Halifax will be icing a lineup featuring a new crop of rookie talent lead by the first and second overall picks in the 2016 QMJHL Entry Draft, forward Benoit-Olivier Groulx and defenseman Jared McIsaac. The situation is not unlike the time Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, the first and second overall picks in the 2011 QMJHL Entry Draft, both found their way into the Mooseheads’ lineup.
To make the comparisons even more similar, Halifax drafted the top-rated goaltender in the 2011 QMJHL draft, Zach Fucale, 11th overall. In 2016, they drafted one of the top-rated goalies, Alexis Gravel, 20th overall. When the Mooseheads rebuild, they do it right.
The excitement doesn’t end there for Mooseheads’ fans as, continuing a recent trend of successful import draft picks like Martin Frk, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Timo Meier, comes the next in line, highly-touted Swiss center Nico Hischier. Hischier is expected to make an immediate impact in Halifax and should see lots of ice time on the team’s first line as he builds his case to become Halifax’s next homegrown top-ten NHL draft pick.
— Halifax Mooseheads (@HFXMooseheads) August 22, 2016
Aside from the influx of rookie skaters, Halifax should see big seasons from last year’s top scorer Maxime Fortier, Finnish forward Otto Somppi (TB), and overage offseason acquisition Bradley Kennedy. Their 2015 seventh overall pick Arnaud Durandeau could also see a spike in production.
Expect a big season from NHL draft eligible defenseman Jocktain Chainey who will be munching minutes in all situations. Captain Taylor Ford will be relied upon to provide some veteran presence, leadership, and consistency while second-year guys Walter Flower and Cooper Jones will compete with several rookies for playing time.
The aforementioned Gravel will likely split duties with 19-year-old third-year Mooseheads’ goalie Kevin Resop during his rookie campaign. Rather than be thrown to the wolves in front of an inexperienced defense corps, Gravel will need to get his feet wet and gradually gain QMJHL experience before he’s ready for the starter’s job. Resop is a perfect partner to help him out as he’s used to playing 30-35 games per season.
Key Players: Manuel Wiederer, Cam Askew, Kevin Klima, Adam Capannelli, Keven Bouchard
Season Expectations: A true mixture of veterans and rookies, the Moncton Wildcats enter the year with a lot of hope and a lot of uncertainty. The hope is that the new faces in the lineup can translate their offensive production from lower leagues into scoring at the QMJHL level. The uncertainty is how a group made up of so many rookies will respond to adversity when the going gets tough.
The team has four of their top-six forwards returning from last year but the group will likely struggle to replace the offense they’ll lose from the departure of two-time league leading scorer Conor Garland (ARI). Veterans Manuel Wiederer (SJS), Cameron Askew, and twins Kevin and Kelly Klima should lead the way offensively.
Breakout seasons from former second and third-round picks Ilya Putintsev and Liam Murphy would go a long way but are far from a guarantee and the team will also need to count on solid seasons from rookies like Adam Capannelli, Jeremy McKenna, and Sam Meisenheimer if they want to have any success.
Defensively, Moncton has a strong top-pairing with Adam Holwell and punishing hitter Zach Malatesta but beyond that lays a lot of inexperience. Sudbury native Ryan Mooney, who showed well after joining the team as a free agent midway through the 2015-16 season, and first-round import selection Simon Le Coultre should form the second pairing while the rest of the unit will be made up of rookie skaters.
— Moncton Wildcats (@monctonwildcats) September 19, 2016
A lot of weight will rest on the shoulders of former Edmonton Oilers draft pick Keven Bouchard who will reassume the starter’s job in the Moncton net. Despite not receiving an entry-level contract from the Oilers, Bouchard was invited to the team’s rookie camp in Penticton where he put in a solid 43 save performance en route to a 4-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets rookie team.
The former President Cup winner is also coming off a solid playoff campaign with the Wildcats and will look to build off those recent successes as he continues to seek a pro career. Backing up Bouchard will be rookie Matthew Waite who is the son of former NHLer and current Chicago Blackhawks goaltending coach, Jimmy Waite.
Saint John Sea Dogs
Key Players: Thomas Chabot, Jakub Zboril, Mathieu Joseph, Joe Veleno, Matthew Highmore
Season Expectations: The sky is the limit for this year’s version of the Sea Dogs as they look to return to their glory days as a QMJHL powerhouse. Saint John has a very well-rounded team that is just as deep up-front as they are on the backend.
Returning top scorers Matthew Highmore and Mathieu Joseph (TB) highlight an offensively gifted forward group that also includes Nathan Noel (CHI), Sam Dove-McFalls (PHI), newly-named captain Spencer Smallman (CAR), and the league’s first ever exceptional status player, Joe Veleno. Not to mention, the team now owns the rights to projected first-round 2017 NHL draft pick Shane Bowers, although he’s already committed to returning to the Waterloo Black Hawks of the USHL for the 2016-17 season.
As impressive as their forwards are, their defense might be even better. Former first-round NHL draft picks Thomas Chabot (OTT) and Jakub Zboril (BOS) anchor a defensive unit that also includes former first overall QMJHL pick Luke Green (WIN), QMJHL veteran Bailey Webster, and returning 6 foot 5 Finnish import Oliver Felixson.
The only real uncertainty for the Sea Dogs heading into the season is in goal, but that’s mainly due to the fact that they are entering the year without a proven number one netminder. The team will have 19-year-old Ontario native Alex Bishop back for his third year along with the ninth overall pick in the 2015 QMJHL draft, Alex D’Orio.
This tandem certainly doesn’t lack in size, as Bishop, who finished last season with .905 save percentage as Saint John’s backup goalie, stands at 6 foot 5 and the 17-year-old rookie D’Orio stands as 6 foot 2. If Bishop continues to improve the way he has the last couple years, and if D’Orio proves to be the real deal, then this area of mild concern for the Sea Dogs will be erased altogether.
Mark Bowie covers the Edmonton Oilers and the QMJHL for THW.