QMJHL prospects 2008-09 season preview

By Kevin Forbes

With many of their top stars moving on to pro careers and no players selected in the first round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, the current QMJHL might appear, to outside observers at least, to be lacking some shine. Appearances can be deceiving however, and while the upcoming year will be vastly different from seasons gone by, the end result should be anything but dull.

The largest change might be one of organization, with the league switching from two divisions to four to accommodate the return of QMJHL hockey to the Montreal area. The former St. John’s Fog Devils have become the Montreal Junior and with the new club and new divisional alignment comes new rules which will see all but two of the 18 QMJHL teams participate in the 2009 playoffs.

Here is a look at those 18 QMJHL clubs and what they might be in for in the 2008-09 season.

TELUS West

Gatineau Olympiques
2007-08 season: Finished 3rd in the League, Won President Cup as League Champion

A year after winning the QMJHL championships, the Gatineau Olympiques will fight to remain competitive in the fast moving world of QMJHL hockey. Not only have the Olympiques lost their leading scorer in Flyers prospect Claude Giroux as he makes the jump to professional hockey, they will also be without their coach and general Manager. Benoit Groulx, who led the team to three QMJHL titles in the past five years, has moved on to coach the Rochester Americans in the AHL.

Returning will be a combination of the new and the old. Veteran carry-overs like forward Paul Byron (BUF) and defenseman Steven Delisle (CLB) will lead the ranks, while the Olympiques will also boast some younger talent such as 2009-eligible defensemen Hubert Labrie and Vincent Barnard as well as goaltender Maxime Clermont who isn’t eligible until the NHL draft in 2010.

Montreal Junior
2007-08 season: Finished 11th in the League, Eliminated in the first round of playoffs

The Newfoundland experiment is dead and there is once again QMJHL hockey in Montreal. After three seasons in Newfoundland, the St. John’s Fog Devils have become the Montreal Junior as the QMJHL once again tries to secure a toehold in the largest market within its borders. The fans in Montreal receive both a new team and a new face to the franchise, with native son Angelo Esposito acquired in an off-season trade. Esposito has come under criticism for dwindling results since his breakthrough rookie year in 2005-06 and the pressure will be on for this local boy to do good.

Though the franchise never made it out of the first round of the playoffs during their seasons in St. John’s, Esposito does have a talent base that should be able to handily back him up. Netminder Jake Allen (STL) will look to build on a strong second half and a gold medal performance at the 2008 U-18s that led to him being the first QMJHL player selected in the draft this past summer. In front of him, a duo of Buffalo prospects in defenseman T.J. Brennan and forward Luke Adam should provide some offensive spark, while Kings grinder Matt Fillier plays a no-nonsense leadership role.

Rouyn-Noranda Huskies
2007-08 season: Finished 1st in the League, Eliminated in the QMJHL finals

Making it all the way to the league finals comes at a heavy cost in junior hockey and the situation in Rouyn-Noranda is no exception. With key players moving on and the team needing to expend young resources to build the framework for that championship run in the first place, the Huskies will be looking to recharge and rebound quickly.

Maxime Macenauer and Jean-Sebastien Berube will both return up front, meanwhile on the back end, defenseman Marc-Andre Bourdon should become a definite target during the trading period after leading all blue liners in scoring last season.

Val-d’Or Foreurs
2007-08 season: Finished 15th in the League, Eliminated in the first round of playoffs

Like many teams, Val d’Or has gone through a loading-up period for a championship run and now are on the other side of that lull period. After a 2007-08 season that saw them finish among the league’s cellar-dwellers, the Foreurs could be a good bet to improve dramatically.

They are led by Maxime Sauve, a Boston prospect acquired midway through the season from Quebec. Sauve thrived as the go-to player for Val d’Or and the team will look for him to improve even more in 2008-09. He’ll be supported by forward Samuel Morneau and defenseman Marco Scandella. Between the pipes, veteran Raffaele D’Orso is one of the top netminders in the league.

TELUS Centre

Drummondville Voltigeurs
2007-08 season: Finished 18th in the League

If things were bad in Val d’Or in 2007-08, they were dreadful in Drummondville. Finishing last in the league with just 33 points, it is little wonder that the Voltigeurs team that will hit the ice in 2008-09 is a young squad.

With no NHL drafted talent currently on their roster, the 2009 Entry Draft could be a big one for Drummondville. Some top talent includes a trio of forwards in Gabriel Dumont, Mathieu Gingras and Philippe Lefebvre as well as an Import selection on defense in Russian Dmitry Kulikov.

Lewiston MAINEiacs
2007-08 season: Finished 9th in the League, Eliminated in the first round of playoffs

The 2007 QMJHL Champions fell to the middle of the pack in 2007-08 and posted a weak defense of their title, not even making it out of the first round. However, the Lewiston trademark of defensive commitment and hard work still reigns supreme with these MAINEiacs as can be no better exemplified by goaltender Peter Delmas. The Colorado draft pick becomes the new face of the franchise with Jonathan Bernier moving on to the professional native.

He won’t be alone though, with a trio of defensemen in Michael Ward (TB), Denis Reul (BOS) and 2009-eligible Eric Gelinas, all making life miserable for any player who crosses the blue line. Up front, hard-nosed forward Danick Paquette (ATL), now captain, will be joined by newly-acquired Islander prospect Maxim Gratchev and 2009-eligible Etienne Brodeur.

Shawinigan Cataractes
2007-08 season: Finished 12th in the League, Eliminated in the first round of playoffs

It’s possible that the Shawinigan Cataractes are on the cusp of something great. Key offseason trades have brought in goaltender Timo Pielmeier, a San Jose prospect and scoring forward Matthew Pistilli, last seen riding shotgun on Giroux‘s line in Gatineau. Meanwhile, their roster will be very familiar with the return of top forwards Cedric Lalonde-McNicoll and Pierre-Alexandre Vandall as well as top defenders Adam Bourque-Leblanc and Simon Lacroix.

One storyline worth watching with the Cataractes could be their 2009 eligible players. Defensemen Brad Yetman and Charles-Olivier Roussel will get their chance to shine with the competitive team and forward Philippe Paradis is expected to play a key role up front for the squad.

Victoriaville Tigres
2007-08 season: Finished 16th in the League, Eliminated in the first round of playoffs

Although it was a long season for Victoriaville fans in 2007-08, there were many signs of hope that things could be improving. After making a championship run, the season before, Victoriaville paid its dues and was the last team to capture a playoff spot in 2008.

Looking forward, the Tigres expect continued excellence from their star netminder, Kevin Poulin. An acrobatic goaltender, Poulin was drafted by the New York Islanders over the offseason. Helping out their netminder will be a pair of drafted defenders in Joel Chouinard (COL) and veteran Jason Demers (SJ). Up front, more is expected from Maxime Tanguay and Olivier Hinse will be searching to make an impression in his rookie season in the league.

TELUS East

Baie-Comeau Drakkar
2007-08 season: Finished 2nd in the League, Eliminated in the first round of playoffs

After a strong and successful 2007-08 campaign, the Baie Comeau Drakkar saw their season end on a sour note. Finishing second in the Q, they were promptly eliminated in the first round by the upstart Rimouski Oceanic. As is often the case in junior hockey, that blow was followed by other serious hits, as many veteran players graduated from their system and moved elsewhere, including last year’s leading scorer, Francois Bouchard. The pendulum of contender and pretender swings quickly in junior hockey.

Though they are still bolstered by veterans like defenseman Pierre-Luc Lessard, a former Ottawa prospect and young talent like forward Gabriel Bourque, a 2009 eligible, the main story to watch in Baie-Comeau could be between the pipes. Incumbent Marco Cousineau, recently selected by the Anaheim Ducks will be capably backed up by newly-acquired Marek Benda. Benda was unable to supplant star rookie Olivier Roy in Cape Breton and it has to be believed that he will be fighting for more playing time with the Drakkar.

Chicoutimi Saguenéens
2007-08 season: Finished 8th in the League, Eliminated in the first round of playoffs

A club on its way up, the Chicoutimi Sagueneens were a popular team to hear at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, thanks in part to two QMJHL rookies. Although Nicolas Deschamps (ANA) and Jacob Lagace (BUF) were playing through their first year in 2007-08, they performed like seasoned pros and as a result heard their names called in the second and third round, respectively. The duo were joined at the draft by burly forward Joel Champagne (TOR) and the trio will return to Chicoutimi this season with the focus on improving the Sagueneens fortunes in 2008-09.

A team that plays strongly at both ends of the ice, Chicoutimi did not escape the 2008 off season unscathed, saying goodbye to veteran forward Francis Pare and his 102 points. But they will benefit from a full season with Charles-Antoine Messier, a Vancouver prospect who is on his third junior team entering his fourth year.

Quebec Remparts
2007-08 season: Finished 10th in the League, Eliminated in the second round of playoffs

With a character like Patrick Roy as your head coach and general manager, there is never a dull moment with the Quebec Remparts. After a playoff dust-up involving the Remparts (and more specifically one of Roy’s sons) led to national headlines, Quebec is hoping 2008-09 will be less controversy and more championships.

The Remparts are studded with NHL drafted talent. Up front, you have offensive forwards like Mikhail Stefanovich (TOR) and Kelsey Tessier (COL), capably supported by Jean-Simon Allard (BUF) and rookie Import pick Dmitri Kugryshev (WAS). On the back-end, Kevin Marshall (PHI) plays with a constant snarl and Samuel Groulx (SJ) provides depth. The team also has a sprinkling of skilled players eligible for the 2009 draft, namely forwards like David Gilbert, Sebastien Trudeau and Frederick Roy as well as defenseman Mikael Tam.

Rimouski Océanic
2007-08 season: Finished 13th in the League, Eliminated in the second round of playoffs

The host of the 2009 Memorial Cup, Rimouski’s berth in the CHL Championship is already assured. With that end goal already well within sight, their mission is to prove that they belong when the top teams from the the Q, OHL and WHL roll into town next May. With a bevy of offensively talented forwards and under the guidance of an experienced coach, they are already well on their way.

With star forward Michael Frolik (FLA) moving on to the pro game, a handful of returning players will be asked to pick up the offensive slack. Forward Philippe Cornet, Patrice Cormier and 2009-eligible Jordan Caron will aim for healthier seasons. They’ll be aided by Montreal prospect Olivier Fortier, a full season from Keven Veilleux and newly-arriving Import selection Luca Cunti, a Tampa Bay prospect. With all that forward arsenal, the question marks remain on the blue line and between the pipes. Alexandre Neron and 2009-eligible Gleason Fournier will lead the defense, while veteran Maxim Gougeon has to be the solution between the pipes.

Atlantic

Acadie-Bathurst Titan
2007-08 season: Finished 6th in the League, Eliminated in the second round of playoffs

It could be a long season in northern New Brunswick for fans of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. Saying goodbye to talented forwards like Mathieu Perreault, the league scoring leader in 2007-08, and Tomas Svoboda is a hard pill to swallow — especially when coupled with the departure of other key pieces like Dany Masse through trades for younger talent to help spur on the rebuilding process. With a roster comprising mostly of players born in the 1990s, the Titan will no doubt use the 2008-09 season as the chance to let their young players gain some experience and become comfortable in larger roles with the club.

All is not lost however, as the Titan will benefit from keeping veterans like defender Drew Paris and forward Tomy Joly. Nicolas Champion has been handed the starting position between the pipes, after performing admirably in a shared role last season with departed netminder Antoine Tardif.

Cape Breton Screaming Eagles
2007-08 season: Finished 7th in the League, Eliminated in the second round of playoffs

When the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles burst out of the gate in 2007-08, the question on everyone’s mind was "how were they doing it?" After losing star forward James Sheppard to the Minnesota Wild among other veteran players, the Eagles just kept on trucking, playing strong, defensively responsible hockey. This commitment to defense drew the eyes of many, including the Phoenix Coyotes who made towering defenseman Mathieu Brodeur their third round pick in the 2008 Entry Draft. With the Eagles faltering in the second half of the 2007-08 season to finish seventh in the league, the team will be hard pressed to duplicate such an effort, especially after losing Pascal Vincent, their general manager and coach.

Despite these blows, the Eagles still boast one of the most coveted assets in the league in Olivier Roy. As a rookie goaltender in 2007-08, Roy was a huge reason for Cape Breton’s strong year, keeping them in games they had no business competing in. Eligible for the draft in 2009, he is considered not only one of the top goaltenders in the draft, but possibly one of the top prospects overall. If all goes according to plan, he’ll head to the draft in Montreal with teammate Philippe Fontaine, an offensively talented forward entering his second year in the league.

Halifax Mooseheads
2007-08 season: Finished 4th in the League, Eliminated in the third round of playoffs

Reading off a list of those players who the Halifax Mooseheads lost in the offseason is like reading a list of the top NHL prospects in the QMJHL from last year. Gone are Andrew Bodnarchuk (BOS), Ryan Hillier (NYR), Brad Marchand (BOS) and perhaps most importantly, Jakub Voracek (CLB). Acquiring all this talent for the 2007-08 season cost the Mooseheads dearly and now they need to pay the piper.

Anaheim prospect Logan MacMillan, the only remaining NHL drafted player and 20-year-old goaltender Mark Yetman will be leaned on heavily to carry the team. They will also be first in line for trade bait, however, at the mid-season point as other teams load up for championship runs and Halifax looks to restock their cupboard.

Moncton Wildcats
2007-08 season: Finished 17th in the League

The Moncton Wildcats paid a high organizational cost to ice a competitive team in 2006 when the club hosted the Memorial Cup. Unable to come away with the big prize, they are finally showing signs of turning the corner after finishing close to the bottom of the QMJHL in 2007-08. Randy Cameron, a Detroit prospect, is one of the top returning forwards and Mark Barberio will continue to blossom as a premiere offensive defenseman after being selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2008 Entry Draft.

But the real story in Moncton will be their youth movement. A large portion of the roster is made up of players in their first or second year of QMJHL action. The Wildcats look like they will also be well represented when the 2009 NHL Entry Draft rolls around. Forwards Matt Brown and Devon MacAusland are both good bets to hear their named called at the draft as is import selection Alexander Fomin who will be playing in his first season in North America. Top pick in the 2008 QMJHL Draft, defenseman Brandon Gormley, will step directly into the lineup and is an early bet to be a top prospect for the 2010 Draft.

PEI Rocket
2007-08 season: Finished 14th in the League, Eliminated in the first round of playoffs

Much more was expected from the 2007-08 version of the PEI Rocket, but they stumbled out of the gate and never seemed to get going after that. With the focus shifted to the upcoming season, the Rocket find themselves with many of the same faces around the dressing room and benefit from another year of experience under the belt for their young guns.

The Rocket are led up front by Chris Doyle, a Rangers prospect known for his wicked shot and on the back end by Jordon Southorn, a two-way defenseman drafted by the Buffalo Sabres. The team also features a handful of talented 2009 eligible prospects in forwards Brandon MacLean and Benjamin Casavant. In addition, PEI’s top pick in the QMJHL draft, Ben Duffy, will step directly into the lineup and a lot is expected from the scoring forward. In fact, big things are expected from the entire Rocket squad and it is up to them to live up to those hopes.

Saint John Sea Dogs
2007-08 season: Finished 5th in the League, Eliminated in the third round of playoffs

On paper, they are the strongest team in the Atlantic Division, but this year they won’t be surprising anyone. After an eye-opening run to the third round of the QMJHL playoffs last season, the Saint John Sea Dogs have served notice that they are no longer to be considered an expansion team and are now a force to be reckoned with. Featuring the top returning scorer in the league in Chris DiDomenico, a Toronto prospect as well as strong defensive core featuring Pittsburgh prospect Alex Grant and Canucks pick Yann Sauve, the Sea Dogs possess depth throughout their lineup. More was expected from goaltender Robert Mayer last season and the pressure will be on for him to perform.

In addition to this veteran depth, the Sea Dogs also feature their fair share of young talent, led by a pair of 2009 eligible players in Steve Anthony, an offensive forward and defenseman Simon Despres, a former first overall selection in the QMJHL draft who is known for his airtight play in his own zone. All told, the Sea Dogs are a team to watch in 2008-09.