Thursday, August 20, 2015

Projecting Saint John's '15-16 Lineup

By Lorne Webster | SN Staff

With the passing of the QMJHL's August trade window and the latest round of player reassignments from training camp being made, the Saint John Sea Dogs' roster is taking shape. With the trading of big Jack vanBoekel to Val-d'Or and the sending of Alex D'Orio and Cedric Pare back to midget AAA today, the Sea Dogs defence and goaltending appears to be set. However - pardon the pun - there are dog fights being waged for forward positions. 

A few fans (e.g. message board posters) seem to be concerned about who will comprise the "fourth line." The better question may be "how will the ice time be distributed?" Sea Dogs general manager Darrell Young has stated that he wants four balanced lines that can be called upon at any time. Also, as legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said, "it's not who starts the game but who finishes it that matters most." Those who have attended the veteran’s practices can pretty much surmise the initial line combos based on practice jersey colours. However, fans should also note that 'Danny Flynn 2.0' is running high tempo drills with a real emphasis on fitness, speed and transition. Teams visiting Harbour Station this season had better be prepared for a "track meet" with a wave of Sea Dogs blue coming at them every shift.

Having said that, it does appear that the six forwards heading out to NHL rookie camps soon are likely to form two lines upon their return. LW Adam Marsh (Detroit), C Nathan Noel (Anaheim) and RW Spencer Smallman (Carolina) could very well stay together for a long time. LW Boko Imama (Tampa), C Sam Dove-McFalls (Philadelphia) and RW Mathieu Joseph (Tampa) are showing tremendous chemistry both on and off the ice.   

As for the remaining forwards, OHL veteran RW Sam ("Povo") Povorozniouk appears destined to start the season as rookie sensation Joe Velano's primary running mate. It is possible that Imama could be the third member of that unit - if coach Flynn feels that the other teams are trying to take liberties with Velano (2015 1st round - 1st overall). Then, assuming former first round draft picks Matthew Highmore and Julien Tessier are paired together, other forwards such as Dan Del Paggio, Kyle Ward, Dawson Theede, Matt Green and big Alex Kealey have until mid-September to show Young and Flynn that they have what it takes to help the Sea Dogs reach their goal of a top four finish in the league this season. 

Furthermore, since the Sea Dogs will need additional players with six guys away, two or three affiliate players (AP) will be called upon to fill out the roster for a few games at least. Without any specific inside information, one can only guess that promising players such as Ryan Kenny, Mike Veleno, Ben Reid, Will Kelly or Alex Lafreniere will be given a second chance to show the coaching staff that they have what it takes to contribute sooner rather than later.

It seems that the Sea Dogs will carry seven defencemen this season. While some observers - especially those from rival teams - may scoff at the suggestion, this season’s defence compares favourably to the unit that led the 2011 team to a Memorial Cup victory. Jakub Zboril (Boston) will be called upon to fill the shoes of Simon "Big Horse" Despres (Anaheim). Thomas Chabot (Ottawa) is a dynamic skater and playmaker in the mold of Nathan Beaulieu (Montreal). Jason Bell (Calgary) has the size and a booming slap shot reminiscent of Eric Gelinas (New Jersey). Potential 2016 NHL first round draft choice Luke Green is an electric skater that reminds many of fan favourite Kevin Gagne (AHL). Adam Bateman (former OHL 1st rounder) is a "Steady Eddie" who, thankfully, appears to be the second coming of Pierre Durepos. Finally, a pair of large lads (i.e. 6' 5" - 215+ lbs.) in Bailey Webster and import Oliver Felixson will provide depth and skill along the lines of Gabriel Bourret and Jason Seed. 

With Zboril, Chabot and Bell away to NHL camps, rookies such as Ian Smallwood, Pierre-Luc Lurette and/or Isaac McGraw are likely to get another shot at proving their worth to the organization as well.

Rookie Alex D'Orio (2015 1st round - 9th overall) showed at the 2015 Canada Winter Games with Team Quebec that he is capable of being a franchise goalie in the QMJHL. Shortly after Young was named GM in Saint John, he stated that one of his goals was to find the "next Zach Fucale." It will be interesting - to say the least - to see if D'Orio can blossom into the mainstay in goal for the Sea Dogs in the near future.

Just when it looked like there was a battle in the crease, the following happened this afternoon:
So the goaltenders are in place to start the season. Marc-Antoine Turcotte was acquired from Blainville-Boisbriand to provide leadership and stability in net. Alex Bishop showed positive signs towards the end of last season but needs to demonstrate consistency in order to step to the front of the line. 

Besides Turcotte, Bishop and D'Orio, the scouting staff did a fine job of identifying two other promising young goalies in 17-year-old Matt Williams (NS) and 16 year-old William Hardy-Murray (PQ). Both of them looked very good in the rookie scrimmages and could step in in the not too distant future to provide a boost.

An eye to the US
One other area worth watching over the next two to three years is the Sea Dogs' ability to bring in prospects from the United States. Charlie Coyle and Adam Marsh are arguably two of the best US born players to play in the QMJHL in recent years. Young and his scouting staff have placed significant focus on acquiring the rights of high-end players viewed by various scouting services as legitimate NHL prospects. Young has utilized mid-round (i.e. rounds four through nine) draft choices to add D Jake Massie ('97 - drafted by Carolina), 1998-born players F Jamie Armstrong, F Monte Graham and D Marshall Rifai to the Sea Dogs’ 50-man protected list. In the 2015 draft, Young selected 1999-born F Marc McLaughlin and D Ben Mirageas - both of whom were rated in the top five of eligible US players for this draft. The fact that none of these players have chosen to come to Saint John for an extended period has been a source of concern for some fans. However, to steal a term from Major League Baseball and the NBA, the "draft and follow" players need time to develop and/or determine their best path. Time will tell if Young's vision and patience pays off.

Photo: Marc Henwood/Station Nation

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