Thursday, September 12, 2013

SN's Giant Maritimes Division Preview

By Kevin Chambers
SN Staff

The Maritimes Division is shaping up to be a very close division this year. Let’s have a look at each team as we get set to drop the puck on the 2013-14 QMJHL Season!

Saint John Sea Dogs
The Saint John Sea Dogs move into their second year of a rebuilding phase after three outstanding seasons. This season will bring a lot more youth in as the rebuild continues to take shape. With the mention of a bid for the Memorial Cup in 2017, this rebuilding phase becomes critical in the success of any potential bid and drafting becomes crucial. Looking at the coming season expect to see lots of youth that bring plenty of speed and skill along with some learning curves as these young players continue to develop their craft.

The Offense will be depending largely on returning forwards Oliver Cooper and Steven Anderson along with some second year players being asked to fill larger roles with the team. 2012 first-round pick (8th overall), Matthew Highmore, showed us a glimpse of what we can expect this season at the end of last season where he seemed to really step his game up in the playoffs … against eventual Memorial Cup Champion Halifax Mooseheads.  Highmore had shoulder surgery in 2012 which slowed his QMJHL career, but in preseason games appeared much more confident and anxious to get the season started. Nathan Noel, chosen third overall in the 2013 Entry Draft, will also be looked upon to provide some immediate impact - but look for the Sea Dogs to be patient with the 16-year old. Remember, Jonathan Huberdeau had 35 points in his rookie campaign. 2013 Import Draft pick Juraj Siska is expected to be out possibly a couple more months after the 17-year old Slovakian suffered a spinal cord injury. Siska appears to be recovering and will be a welcome addition to this young rebuilding offense.

The youth movement continues with the defense in Saint John with three rookies on their 2013-14 roster including first-round pick (17th overall) Will Thompson, second-round pick (22nd overall) Thomas Chabot, and 17-year old rookie Alexander McQuaid (cousin of Boston Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid). The Dogs will lean heavily on overage defender David Weckworth and last year’s first-round pick (11th Overall), Olivier Leblanc, to steady things defensively. Also returning this season, the Sea Dogs will look for a strong season from Juri Repe who, like his fellow import player, is recovering from an injury.

In goal there is no question Sebastien Auger will get the bulk of the starts after an outstanding campaign in his first year as a starting goaltender. Plenty were concerned about him at the start of the season last year … nobody is thinking about that this season. Auger cleaned up at the awards ceremony at the conclusion of the season including the team’s MVP award, Most Improved Player, Fans Choice Award, Team Player Award, and the 3 Stars Award. With Alex Fournier nursing an injury the Sea Dogs were granted permission to carry an extra roster player so the backup role is still yet to be determined in Saint John between second-year goaltender Alex Fournier and rookie netminder Antoine Landry. One thing is certain - Saint John will have one of the best goaltenders in the QMJHL and teams will undoubtedly come knocking at the Christmas Trade Period.

Charlottetown Islanders
The newly named Charlottetown Islanders are set to launch their new brand to the league and their fans. It’s a very exciting time for Islander fans as they hope their team can reach new heights. The Islanders will be a team in transition, but have some good building blocks in place and could potentially have a good season if the pieces fall into place.

Offensively, Charlottetown will be without a couple key players this season with the departure of last year’s scoring champion Ben Duffy and the player who finished third in scoring in Josh Currie. The two high scoring players combined for a total of 214 points last season without missing a single game.  Looking ahead to this season, the Islanders will be looking to overage and import player Matej Beran along with 18-year old Yan-Pavel Laplante who missed the majority of last season with an injury. In addition, the Islanders will look to 2012 first-round pick (2nd Overall) Alexis Pepin and 2013 first-round pick (13th Overall) Daniel Sprong to contribute offensively. Charlottetown also acquired another 2012 first-round pick (18th Overall) in Kameron Kielly - a Charlottetown native -from the Gatineau Olympiques.

Defensively the Islanders will have one of the older groups of defensemen in the Maritimes Division.  Led by overage defenseman Troy Vance, Ryan Graves, and newly acquired Julien Leduc the Islanders have the size to make things difficult for opposing forwards. The biggest concern might be whether the defense can contribute enough offensively. They certainly don’t lack size and they have experience in the league.

In goal, the Islanders have one of the top goaltenders in the QMJHL in Antoine Bibeau. Despite the early exit from last season’s playoffs, Bibeau continued to put up solid numbers for his team and keeping them in most games. Once he returns from Toronto Maple Leafs training camp, Bibeau will be a very welcome addition to the squad and will once again give his team a chance to win a majority of their games.

Moncton Wildcats
The Moncton Wildcats appear to be a team in transition with a large turnover this season compared to last season. To put things in perspective, the Wildcats have 24 players listed on their roster and of those 24 only 10 have played a single game for the Wildcats. It appears a rebuild has begun in Moncton, but a lot will depend on their import picks and rookies.

Offensively, the Wildcats lost their top five scorers from a year ago including Jaskin, Danault, Veilleux, and of course the Saulnier brothers. There is little doubt the Cats will look to import Russian forward Ivan Barbashev - who is a top prospect for the 2014 NHL Entry Draft - and coming off a very good rookie campaign picking up 62 points along the way. Moncton remains hopeful that their other Russian import player, Vladimir Tkachev, will make the trip to the CHL. Currently, Tkachev is playing with Ak Bars Kazan of the KHL where he has recorded one assist in three games there. A decision should be expected within the next couple of weeks regarding Tkachev, so stay tuned. Outside these two import players the Cats will be turning to 19 year old forwards Ryan Penny & Christophe Lalonde.

Defense might be the biggest of concerns for the Wildcats with a lot of unknowns in this particular area. Just two players have any QMJHL experience, one of which has only one full season under his belt. Danick Emond will be tasked with leading this very inexperienced group of defenders and can expect to play a ton of minute in the Hub City. The new group of defenders includes four rookies so Emond will have a very busy season working with the other Moncton defensemen and munching minutes himself.

Between the pipes for Moncton will be Alex Dubeau. Statistically it seems Dubeau is rather consistent, but his play at times isn’t. He’s capable of having very good games and other games where he just seems off. With this year’s defense, Dubeau will have to remain sharp on a consistent basis and elevate his game. Dubeau’s backup, Graham Hunt, another new player to the team, is an 18-year old American free agent invite.

Acadie-Bathurst Titan
The Titan are coming off a first-round exit at the hands of the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada and will be looking to bounce back this season. The Leo-Guy Morrissette era is over in Bathurst and many fans are excited about the change (probably a few folks in Saint John are as well). After a tragic start to the 2013 preseason with the sudden loss of rookie forward Jordan Boyd, the Titan will undoubtedly be playing with a greater purpose this season as they try to cope with the loss of a teammate and friend.

Offensively, the Titan look to be one of the more dangerous teams in the Maritimes Division. They are led by a strong group of experienced QMJHL players including Raphael Lafontaine, Patrik Zdrahal, and newly acquired Adam Chapman who spent last season with the Gatineau Olympiques. Complementing this trio of forwards are Alexandros Soumakis, Adam Stevens, and Dominic Beauchemin. Beauchemin will look to take advantage of the opportunity after spending last season on a very deep Halifax Mooseheads team.

The backend for the Titan might be one of the areas of concern for them much like it was last season. The defense will be led by Francois Godin with a mix of experience and young defensemen. Whether the defense can contribute to the offense will be a question mark for the Titan. The Titan did add tough guy Lukas Grundy to the team which definitely adds an element of toughness - although also soaking up an overage roster spot. Also joining the Titan defense is rookie and 2013 first-round pick (5th Overall) Guillaume Brisebois. He will look to gain valuable experience with the veteran defense group.

In goal we might have an interesting battle between two Nova Scotia kids with 19-year old Jacob Brennan and 17-year old Mason McDonald. At this point it seems the edge might go to the veteran, but should he slip, McDonald will be ready to jump in and do the job. That being said, someone pushing a goaltender often acts as a motivator and that could be the case here.

Cape Breton Screaming Eagles
The Cape Breton Screaming Eagles have had an interesting summer to say the least. After finishing last in the QMJHL, the Eagles won a coin toss and drafted Nicolas Roy first overall and of course he chose not to play for Cape Breton - which is becoming a trend in the QMJHL. Since then Cape Breton has dealt Nicolas Roy to the Chicoutimi Sagueneens for three first-round picks (and the fifth-overall pick in next year’s draft also for the no show) and now look to get the season under way without the distraction.

The offense for the Eagles begins with William Carrier who had his season cut short with an injury last year and will be looking for a big season this year. The Eagles should also see a decent increase in production from the third overall selection in the 2012 QMJHL Draft - Clarke Bishop. The Eagles also welcome a couple new players in Russian import draft pick Maxim Lazarev and American draft pick Cameron Darcy who should provide more depth to their attack. The Eagles appear to have a more balanced attack beyond Carrier and a lot depends on their first year players including Lazarev and Darcy.

Defensively last season has to be considered a disappointment. I personally had higher expectations for that group and hope for the Eagles sake they can improve on last season. The Eagles did acquire offensive minded defenseman Jeremy Beaudry giving them a legitimate power play QB along with Justin Hache. It appears there is a good mix of veterans and young kids in this group along with 12th overall selection in the 2013 draft - Jason Bell.

Goaltending is a big question mark for Cape Breton going into this season. Maxime Lagace as a young goaltender showed a lot of promise - but just hasn’t developed. He’s been away at Dallas Stars Rookie Camp and that might give him the experience he needs to get back into the groove. 2012 second-round draft pick Alex Bureau is waiting in the wings should Lagace slip up. Bureau is just 17 and you can bet the leash on Lagace won’t be a very long one.

Halifax Mooseheads
The 2013 MasterCard Memorial Cup Champions will look to defend their championship this season and it’s quite possible for them. There are plenty of returning players in the Moose lineup, but potentially missing a couple key guys. Hmmm … (Wonder who that could be). Winning back-to-back championships is within reason, but may have to fill a couple holes along the way via trade.

On offense the Mooseheads will be missing the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft in Nathan MacKinnon. Patrick Roy has stated publically that the Cole Harbour native will be staying in Colorado for the 2013-14 NHL season. Next up is Jonathan Drouin where the picture isn’t quite as clear as MacKinnon. Although many think the No. 3 pick in the NHL Draft will stick in Tampa Bay, there are others who aren’t so sure. Personally I think he’s staying… but we’ll see. Should Drouin return he would make the Mooseheads maybe just a player or two away from becoming league favorites once again.  Outside the two superstar players from last season there are still plenty of options for the Moose offensively. Forwards Darcy Ashley and Luca Ciampini along with Andrew Ryan and possibly Brent Andrews should he be returned to junior. Also include their two new import players, the talented Nikolaj Ehlers and Timo Meier along with American brothers Connor & Danny Moynihan. The offensive pieces are still there for Halifax to be a dangerous team.

Defensively the Mooseheads look to have the best six, deep defense in the Maritimes Division. Starting with their Captain Trey Lewis, who simply oozes leadership and experience, you really can’t ask for more in a captain then what Lewis brings to the table for the Moose. In addition, they have MacKenzie Weegar, Matt Murphy, and Austyn Hardie who will bring a wealth of experience from last year’s run which will benefit the younger defensemen joining the team.

Zachary Fucale will once again carry the load in Moose Country between the pipes. Fucale is just 18-years old, but is already a veteran in the league with the amount of games he has played. Including playoffs and Memorial Cup action, Fucale has played in 151 games in just his 16- and 17-year old seasons - and of course has a Memorial Cup ring to show for his efforts. His best numbers came in the 2013 playoffs so that really puts things into perspective. 19-year old Kevin Darveau will serve as Fucale’s backup. He may not see much action as long as Fucale can continue his stellar play.

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