Friday, September 23, 2016

Predictions for the 2016-17 QMJHL season

A new QMJHL season has arrived.

Many league followers expect a three horse race between last year's semifinalists from Rouyn-Noranda, Shawinigan and Saint John. All three teams are poised to take a serious run at the 2017 President Cup. However, one of three dark horses from Bathurst, Chicoutimi or Gatineau may very well push the “Big Three” to the finish line.

By Lorne Webster
Maritimes Division
Three of the teams with the most significant roster turnovers are from the Maritimes - Cape Breton (11), Charlottetown (nine) and Moncton (eight). All of those teams will continue to be tough - but many eyes will be on the young guns in Halifax in the battle for the Maritimes.

1.  Saint John - Sea Dogs fans are excited to see the continued growth of Joe Veleno. However, with a league leading 11 players invited to NHL camps (including Chabot, Zboril, Joseph and Noel), the first few weeks could be rough for the Sea Dogs. But once the full roster is in place - and coach Danny Flynn makes any necessary changes over Christmas - the Sea Dogs should reach the 100-point plateau.

2. Bathurst - backstopped by Reilly Pickard and led by an exciting forward group (e.g. Morand, Kuznetsov, Miromanov, Viel, etc.), the team’s fate rests largely on the development of its defence.

3. Halifax - There is plenty to be excited about after Cam Russell added the likes of Hischier, Groulx and McIsaac to a core led by Fortier, Somppi and Chainey. Expect a roller coaster ride for this team of young guns.

4. Charlottetown - Coach/GM Jim Hulton has improved his defence with the addition of Brisebois and Donaghey but goal scoring behind Chlapik and Coughler will tell the tale. Islanders fans are hoping for a quick return to action for Daniel Sprong - but reports out of Pittsburgh suggest he'll end up with Crosby and Co. in January/February.

5. Moncton - Owner Robert Irving expects to win every year and the Wildcats will continue to battle. Manuel Weiderer and the Klima twins have huge shoes to fill as scoring whiz Conor Garland moves on. And team defence is a question mark.

6. Cape Breton - If Pierre-Luc Dubois stays in the NHL as many expect, it could be a long season for the Screaming Eagles. Fiore, Carozza and LeBlanc provide excellent leadership but depth is lacking after a huge roster turnover.

East Division
 Outside of Chicoutimi, there doesn't appear to be a notable challenger in the East for Shawinigan.

1. Shawinigan - Last season, the Cataractes added high-end veterans to a relatively young core in their run to the 2016 QMJHL final. Shawinigan has nine players at NHL camps and led by Beauvillier, Yan, Girard and Sylvestre, they will be a force once again.

2. Chicoutimi - The Sagueneens have added a pair of NHL prospects from Ontario - Verbeek and Bushnell - to a core led by Roy, Allard and Zhukenov and are backstopped by Julio Billia. 

3. Victoriaville - The Tigres are led by young power forwards Laberge and Comtois. However, their response to management and coaching changes plus the defection of their 2014 first round draft choice, D Guillaume Beck, will determine if they challenge for first or last in the East.

4. Rimouski - Besides Habs prospect Simon Bourque, there are few household names for the Oceanic. However, coach/GM Serge Beausoleil is a master of finding and polishing hidden gems and building a winning tradition in Rimouski.

5. Quebec - A full-blown rebuild - after hosting the 2015 Memorial Cup - is in full effect. Callum Booth should see plenty of rubber - at least until Christmas. Many eyes will be on Igor Larionov Jr.

6. Baie-Comeau - This is another rebuilding team and fans can expect the Drakkar to lead the league in shots against and penalty minutes.

West Division
The West could well be the most hotly challenged division in the QMJHL. Rouyn-Noranda will again be among the league leaders and Gatineau - likely along with Val-d'Or - will push the Huskies again this season.

1. Rouyn-Noranda - With seven players at NHL camps, there is still plenty of talent on the defending President Cup champions. Players such as the Lauzon brothers, Moncton native Philippe Myers, Fontaine, Beaudin and Waked will once again be a force. 

2. Gatineau - The post Benoit Groulx era begins in Hull. Led by the likes of Meloche, Trenin and Abramov, "the Bob" will still be an extremely tough place for road teams to earn points.

3. Val-d'Or - Sea Dogs fans are likely to follow the Foreurs closely to see how Adam Marsh, Jack vanBoekel and Jason Bell fair in northwestern Quebec. Those three plus 'man-child' Julien Gauthier, Galipeau and Henley should be interesting to watch.

4. Blainville-Boisbriand - Coach/GM Joel Bouchard added veterans Jeremy Roy and Alexandre Alain to a solid young core. But if star goalie Samuel Montembeault turns pro as is expected, former Saint John Vito’s standout Jacob Stewart could be forced into a leading role quickly.

5. Sherbrooke - Saint John Vito’s fans will also keep a keen eye on the exploits of power forward Anderson MacDonald. G Evan Fitzpatrick and D Carl Neill will need to shoulder a heavy load in order for the Phoenix to rise in the standings.

6. Drummondville - the Voltigeurs are another rebuilding squad. There is promise with NHL prospects in Carcone, Sevigny and Barre-Boulet but many expect another tough season for Drummondville.
By Kevin Chambers
Maritimes Division
1. Saint John Sea Dogs - Overall depth at both forward and defence should make the Sea Dogs the top team in the Division - despite not having an experienced goaltender.

2. Acadie-Bathurst Titan - Lots of depth offensively and the goaltending is solid - but the team could really use a couple top end defenders to put them over the hump.

3. Charlottetown Islanders - Will they have Sprong and Blais back in time to save their season or not at all? Lots of questions surround the Islanders although the defence is very good.

4. Halifax Mooseheads – The young guns are ready to go and the Moose will begin their ascent up the standings despite having some peaks and valleys. The kids will be alright.

5. Cape Breton Screaming Eagles – The big question is whether Pierre-Luc Dubois will return to the lineup. Regardless, the Eagles are inexperienced at both defence and goaltending and, if Dubois does return, expect him to be dealt over the holidays for a bounty.

6. Moncton Wildcats – Someone has to finish last despite it being very close between the three and six seeds. The Wildcats have just two experienced defenders and don’t have a lot of depth behind Wiederer, Aske, and the Klima twins.

East Division
1. Shawinigan Cataractes - Practically a lock for the top team in the division and quite possibly the entire QMJHL. With plenty of goal scoring options and depth on defence, the Cataractes should walk away with the East.

2. Victoriaville Tigres - With the two through four rankings there isn’t much separating the trio. The Tigres, although not among the top teams, do have decent depth at the forward and defence positions, giving them a slight edge.

3. Chicoutimi Sagueneens - The Sags don’t quite have the offence of the Tigres but have one of the best forwards in Nicolas Roy. They also have one of the most underrated defenseman in Frederic Allard and Julio Billia guarding their net.

4. Rimouski Oceanic - A notch below the Tigres and Sags, the Oceanic lack the top forward depth. Their defence should be solid and Simon Bourque is among the best in the league.

5. Quebec Remparts - The Remparts are in rebuild mode and will rely heavily on Matthew Boucher - who happens to be the son of head coach and GM Phillippe Boucher. Expect Callum Booth to see plenty of pucks coming his way.

6. Baie-Comeau Drakkar - Another team in rebuild mode after making three picks in the first round in 2016, the Drakkar will have two more in 2017 - and expect one of those to be a lottery pick as the Drakkar will struggle.

West Division
1. Rouyn-Noranda Huskies - The defending champions will be right in the thick of things again. With no shortage of returning players, the Huskies have the experience and depth in all areas to repeat as league champs.

2. Gatineau Olympiques - The ‘Piques will battle the Huskies for the division all year in what should be a battle that could come right down to the last week of the season. Once again, depth in all areas and Gatineau is hungry.

3. Val-d’Or Foreurs - The Foreurs have some offensive weapons, led by Gauthier, and decent depth on defense. While Montpetit should provide solid goaltending, the question becomes what will be left after the trade period?

4. Blainville-Boisbriand Armada – A very well coached team with solid defence that added Jeremy Roy, they might have to work for their goals - and goaltending is an unknown.

5. Drummondville Voltigeurs - The Volts continue to rebuild their squad and still have some dangerous offensive weapons up front. They will likely ease top draft pick Olivier Rodrigue into the league.

6. Sherbrooke Phoenix - A rebuilding team for 2016-17, the Phoenix will rely on veteran defenders along with solid goaltending from Fitzpatrick to keep them in games.

Photo: Marc Henwood/Station Nation

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