Thursday, September 11, 2014

2014-15 QMJHL Preview and Predictions

By Lorne Webster | SN Staff

There always seems to be a little extra excitement whenever the QMJHL hosts the Memorial Cup.  With a strong team being assembled in Quebec City, other teams, most notably the Rimouski Oceanic, are lining up to get their tickets to the big dance as well.

The consensus amongst the 'Q' league's pundits is that the rivalry between Rimouski and Quebec could be the leading story line of the 2014-2015 season. However, fans in Cape Breton, Gatineau, Chicoutimi (the team which lost the bid to host this year's Memorial Cup) and others have strong feelings that their troops also have a real shot at winning the Presidents Cup - and virtually every team has one or two significant "if's" - everything falls in place. 

Here is a quick look, by division, of how things appear to be shaping up;

1. Gatineau - Benoit Groulx is a master at providing a competitive team every year. By making significant moves to add Louick Marcotte (summer trade from Val-d'Or), Alexis Pepin (Christmas trade with Charlottetown) and moving up the draft board to snag Pascal Laberge, Groulx schooled many GM's on the art of retooling on the fly. With those three added to the likes of Vaclav Karabacek, a strong defense led by Alex Carrier and strong goaltending from Anthony Brodeur (a.k.a. Martin's son), the Olypiques will be a force once again. Sea Dogs fans will want to keep a close eye on Noah Zilbert and Joey Richard.

2. Sherbrooke - There are high hopes in Sherbrooke as the latest expansion team moves from door mats to contenders. Second place in the west may be a stretch, but the other teams in this division were built for big runs last season and may slip as they move to rebuild or retool this season. The Phoenix have some exciting young forwards, led by Daniel Audette, Tim Weiser and Simon Desbiens along with veteran Liam O'Brien and a talented young defence core with Carl Neill, Jeremy Roy and Julien Bahl. However, goaltending will be the key with Alex Bureau (acquired from Cape Breton) and Evan Fitzpatrick (No. 4 draft pick from Nova Scotia) determining if their lofty goals can be achieved this season.

3. Val-d'Or - The Foreurs lost the top line from last year's Presidents Cup championship team, most notably Anthony Mantha and Sam Henley. However, Stephen Anderson moves from Saint John to help Anthony Richard, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, P-M Poudrier and Julien Gauthier keep their hopes alive for another run at a championship. Keven Bouchard will shoulder a heavy load in goal and Jeremie Fraser and Olivier Galipeau will lead a very young defence. Keeping the goals against low will dictate which way the Foreurs head this year.

4. Rouyn-Noranda - The Huskies lost a large part of their forward lines, most notably J-S Dea and Jack Nevins. However, a strong pre-season has raised the hopes of the Huskies, led by goalie Alexandre Belanger. Redgie Bois and Moncton's Philippe Myers anchor a solid defence, while Ryan Penny, Julien Nantel, Francis Perron and Jeremy Auger work to fill a goal scoring void.
5. Drummondville - The Voltigeurs are expected by many to struggle this season but, lead by one of the top goaltending tandems in the league with L-P Guidon and big Joe Fleschler, and a solid forward group with Georgs Golovkovs, Chris Lalancette and Joey Ratelle, the Volts could surprise a few teams and move up the standings. A young defence lead by C-D Beaudoin will be the key to success in Drummondville.

6. Blainville-Boisbriand - The Armada were clearly built for a long run last season and many holes must be filled from the departure of stars such as Etienne Marcoux, M-O Roy, Ryan Tesink, Chris Clapperton, etc. However, a strong core still remains and is led by Danick Martel and Marcus Hinds up front, Daniel Walcott on defence and Samuel Montembault in goal. Joel Bouchard seems to find a way to get his way in the league, so it will be interesting to see what tricks he can pull this season.

1. Rimouski - The Oceanic appear to be the most loaded team in the QMJHL to start the season. Up front, stars Anthony DeLuca, Michael Joly and Frederik Gauthier are joined by Vincent Dunn and Chris Clapperton. On defence, twin towers Sam Morin and Loic Leduc, along with Jan Kostalek lead a very strong unit. And Philippe Desrosiers and Olivier Tremblay form arguably the strongest goaltending tandem in the QMJHL. Anything less than a President's Cup will be seen as a major disappointment in Rimouski.

2. Quebec - Philippe Boucher's move from Rimouski to Quebec to replace legendary coach/GM Patrick Roy only adds to the rivalry between two of the league powers. Boucher has done a fine job of acquiring excellent players from other teams to bolster the Memorial Cup hosts... and he has a few bullets left in his gun to fill any perceived voids during the Christmas trading period. Stars Anthony Duclair and Adam Erne have been joined by Marc-Olivier Roy (from BLB), Taylor Burke (from Gatineau), new import Dmytro Timashov and Guilliame Gauthier (from Cape Breton). Should Vladislav Kamenev also join the Remparts from Russia, the forward group should be set. A strong defense is led by Cody Donaghey, Ryan Graves (from Val-d'Or) and Nikolas Broulliard (from Drummondville). Goalies Callum Booth and Eric Brassard (from Charlottetown) will be given until Christmas to prove they can carry the heavy load. Former Sea Dogs Nicolas Hebert, Alex McQuiad and Marcus Cuomo will only add more interest for fans in Saint John.

3. Chicoutimi - Despite losing the bid to host the 2015 Memorial Cup, the Sagueneens will be out to prove that they have a team strong enough to win the President's Cup. A forward group led by rising star Nicolas Roy, Laurent Dauphin and Janne Puhakka, have been joined by Gabryel Paquin-Boudreau, Alex Ranger, Sam Hodhod and Joe Strong. Nikita Liamkin and Brian Lovell will be counted on the provide solid defence in front of young Julio Billia. Like many other contenders, the Sags ability to maintain a low goals against average will likely determine their place in the standings.

4. Baie-Comeau - The sideshow known as Eric Veilleux has left town and the Drakkar find themselves solidly in transition. With veteran forwards Jeremy Gregoire, Valentin Zykov, Fred Gamelin and former Moosehead Luca Ciampini, a young defence lead by Alexis Vanier and Nicolas Meloche and strong goaltending in Philippe Cadorette, the Drakkar will still be a very difficult team to face. The first half performance will likely determine if GM Steve Ahern is a buyer or seller during the Christmas trading period.

5. Shawinigan - The Cataractes are entering year three of their post-Memorial Cup championship rebuild. Dennis Yan (from Russia/USA) and Anthony Beauvillier should provide much of the offensive flair in the Cats lineup. Rookie Samuel Girard has been added to a defence highlighted by Dylan Labbe and big Evan Scott. If import Marvin Cupper moves on, Storm Phaneuf will be expected to backstop the young Cats. Under the guidance of Martin Bernard, the Cataractes will be a hard working squad that could surprise a few teams and make their way back up the standings.

6. Victoriaville - The Tigres are a team that is hard to gauge. Many experts expect Victoriaville to struggle, especially in light of a difficult schedule against Rimouski, Quebec, Chicoutimi and Baie-Comeau. However, the Tigres have a solid team overall with forwards Yan-Pavel Laplante, Tommy Veilleux, Jan Mandat and Angelo Miceli. On defence, Julien Leduc, Cameron Yarwood and rookie Guillaume Beck will log heavy minutes. Also, Nova Scotia's Brandon Whitney provides solid goaltending. New GM Yanick Jean will most likely move several of these strong players and commit to a full blown rebuild in the second half.

1. Cape Breton - Marc-Andre Dumont played a major role in building last year's President's Cup champs in Val-d'Or. He appears to be well on the way to repeating the feat in Cape Breton - but that is expected by many to happen next season. The Screaming Eagles have arguably the strongest collection of 18 year-olds in the QMJHL lead by forwards Julien Pelletier, Clark Bishop, Russian snipers Maxim Lazarev and 6'3" Evgeny Svechnikov, as well as Loik Leveille, Jonathan Deschamp (from Sherbrooke) and Duncan MacIntyre (from Quebec) on defence. These young guns are aided by veterans Charles-Eric Legare, Kyle Farrell, Mason Gray and, possibly most importantly, goaltender Francois Brassard (from Quebec). The Screaming Eagles' faithful truly believe that they can follow in the footsteps of former powerhouses Saint John and Halifax and bring the President's Cup back to the Maritimes.

2. Halifax - The Mooseheads appear to be nearing the end of an awesome run. However, if Steve Yzerman shocks the hockey world and returns Jonathan Drouin to Halifax - look out. Since the chances of that happening appear to be far less than 1%, Mooseheads fans are hopeful that the Dashing Dane, Nikolaj Ehlers, is sent back from Winnipeg for one more season. If Ehlers sticks with the Jets, Bobby Smith and Cam Russell may have some difficult decisions to make regarding retooling or rebuilding. With Ehlers, Timo Meier, Phil Gadoury, the Moynihan brothers, Ryan Falkenham and big Brandon Vuic, the Mooseheads are still very strong up front. However, the defence, lead by veterans Matt Murphy, Austyn Hardie and Jesse Lussier has seen significant turnover and their ability to clear the front of the net for superstar Zach Fucale will ultimately determine where Halifax ends up in the standings. Sea Dogs fans will want to watch for super agitator Kelly Bent in Moosehead green.

3. Charlottetown - Just when most QMJHL fans thought Grant Sonier had committed to a full blown rebuild by trading away many excellent veterans last season, @GPSHockey pulled the ol' switcheroo and made a number of big deals to acquire high-end Maritime talent, such as captain Ryan MacKinnon (from Rimouski) and former Sea Dogs first-round draft choice Will Thompson on defence, along with power forwards Ross Johnston (Victoriaville) and Oliver Cooper (Saint John). With those players in addition to budding star Daniel Sprong, Kameron Kielly and Alexandre Goulet up front, big David Henley on defence, as well as Calgary Flames draft choice Mason MacDonald in goal, the Islanders will be very tough to play against.  Discipline, or lack thereof, may have a significant influence on Charlottetown's place in the standings.

4. Moncton - With Russian stars Ivan Barbashev and Vladimir Tkachev, along with five Americans (led by Conor Garland and Cameron Askew) and veteran Christophe Lalonde, there is plenty to be excited about in Moncton. Alex Dubeau is a proven QMJHL goalie to backstop the Wildcats. However, a young defence, lead by big Jacob Sweeney, and team depth will play a huge part in determining if the Wildcats can challenge for the top of a strong Maritimes Division.

5. Saint John - In example No. 1 of an extreme makeover, Darrell Young was hired as GM to expedite the Sea Dogs' rebuild. With an eye clearly on the possibility of hosting the 2017 Memorial Cup, Young has brought in nine free agents (seven from Ontario and two from the USA), highlighted by former OHL first-round picks in lefty winger Mitch Dempsey (a Boston Bruins draft choice) and defenseman Adam Bateman - both of whom are 19. Returning 20 year-old Sebastien Auger backstops a young, talented core with 18-year-olds D Olivier LeBlanc, C Matt Highmore and RW Spencer Smallman, along with exciting 17 year-olds C Nathan Noel (No. 3 in last season's Q draft), Czech D Jakub Zboril (already touted as a 2015 NHL first-round selection), C Sam Dove-McFalls and D Thomas Chabot, as well as 16-year-old D Luke Green (No. 1 in this season's Q draft). Despite being the youngest team in the QMJHL, these Sea Dogs are clearly bigger and faster than the past two seasons... and they will likely surprise a few teams. If the free agents respond very well to their fresh starts and the young core matures as expected, the Sea Dogs could move past the target of a 12th-14th place finish in the overall 'Q' standings.

6. Acadie-Bathurst - In example No. 2 of an extreme makeover, new colours and uniforms may have inspired GM Sylvain Couturier to replace all but four forwards from last season, as well as the head coach (Mario Pouliot). He acquired proven veterans Andrew Ryan and Raphael Corriveau, along with new imports Egor Popov and Juraj Mily as well as first-round draft choice Jordan Maher to lead the charge on offense. The Titan's defense, led by young star Guilliame Brisebois and veterans Anthony Gingras and Alex Gosselin remains largely unchanged. Jacob Brennan returns for his 20-year-old season and he will be counted on heavily to carry the load in goal.  

Let the fun and games begin...

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