This is usually the time of the year when the junior leagues really start to come into focus. When early-mid November arrives, that means the leagues have been in action for nearly two months. And that means that the quality teams have begun to establish themselves. And the early-season surprises have likely come back down to earth. As the saying goes, now is the time that we really begin to separate the contenders from the pretenders.
I’ve managed to take in a batch of Quebec League games this season, and there is one thing that I’m certain of. There is not going to be any front-running team in the league this year. It’s going to be a real battle in the Q this season, with as many as a half-dozen legitimate candidates to skate away as champions.
The Saint John Sea Dogs find themselves atop the standings right now, mainly due to their depth, solid goaltending and strong coaching. They have also shown a real knack for winning the close games. Winger Steven Anthony (VAN) has led a balanced attack, while Russian rookie Stanislav Galiev has had a very smooth transition into the league out of the USHL. He still has a few holes in his game, but he’s more consistent than I had anticipated and I really like his overall skill level. Bringing in veteran _hoffman”>Mike Hoffman (OTT) in the off-season has proven to be a nice move and Saint John has a terrific one-two punch on the blueline in Yann Sauve (VAN) and Simon Despres (PIT).
In net, overage goalie Marc-Antoine Gelinas is having a career year. Last season, he showed some signs that he would be able to handle a heavier workload, but not many observers expected this much success. But for the Sea Dogs to be there in the end, they will need another scoring threat up front, a bit more toughness, and a steadying influence on the blueline.
As the defending champions, Drummondville may still be the team to beat. While they lost a lot of talent and some key role players from last year’s squad, they still have a lot of skill in the lineup. Sean Couturier continues to develop and he’s starting to emerge as a clutch player. He’s still very raw, but you can really see the progress that he’s been making. The long playoff run last year has served him well. Winger Marc-Olivier Vachon is a dangerous scorer and Montreal prospect Gabriel Dumont is a physical, talented forward who plays with a real edge despite lacking ideal size.
I really like the way Marc-Antoine Desnoyers creates offense from the blueline. But he will need a lot more support. Goalie Antoine Tardif has been solid, consistent and reliable. He hasn’t been outstanding, but he really hasn’t been called on to make the spectacular save. But the former first rounder has the tools to raise his game another notch and help give the Voltigeurs another run at the championship.
On paper, the Quebec Remparts are the team to beat. They have three strong forward lines and an underrated defense that loves to get involved in the play. Overage Marc-Olivier Vallarand is playing for a pro contract and so far he’s having the best year of his career. He has good hands, he isn’t afraid to make a play in traffic and he’s strong on his skates. Jonathan Audy-Marchessault is an undersized playmaker who gets a ton off ice time thanks to his intensity and hockey smarts. He too may not be an ideal pro prospect, but he’s very effective and an enjoyable player to watch. Rounding out the forward lines are NHL prospects Kelsey Tessier (COL), Dmitri Kugryshev (WAS), Danick Paquette (ATL), David Gilbert (CHI), and Ryan Bourque (NYR).
What I noticed most about the Remparts is the chemistry that seems to be developing. The players are working well together and this could carry them a long way.
Peter Delmas (COL) and Jean-Philippe Gagnon have been solid in net, but Quebec could really use someone to step up and emerge as the No. 1 netminder.
Around the rest of the league, one player who has stood out for me has been Gatineau goalie Maxime Clermont. The draft-eligible netminder has really stepped up this season. He’s playing in front of a lot of scouts every night and he’s responded well to the pressure.
Another draft-eligible prospect that hasn’t disappointed is Brandon Gormley. The Moncton blueliner has been solid at both ends of the ice. I’d like to see him play a more physical style, but he’s displaying his offensive tools and making pretty good decisions with the puck. His progress hasn’t been dramatic, but he’s going in the right direction.
Forward Luke Adam (BUF) has been a real force for Cape Breton. He’s a powerful player with a good touch around the net. He’s using his size more effectively this year and seems to be learning that he’s a much better player when he uses his size and strength and plays with a consistent intensity level. If he can add another gear, he could emerge as a real star. But I’m still not sure if his future lies at center or on the wing.
Switching my focus over to Ontario, there’s not much more that needs to be said about the Windsor Spitfires. After devoting some space in last month’s column talking about how good Windsor is, the club has gone out in the last few weeks and gotten even better. Enticing forward Kenny Ryan (TOR) to leave the college ranks has given the Spits even more forward depth. I can’t remember the last time I saw a junior squad with this much talent at forward. And defensively, they’ve been excellent at both ends of the ice. And that is despite having Ryan Ellis (NAS) on the sidelines.
Goalie Troy Passingham continues to get the job done in net. But I still think that Windsor will make a move to solidify their goaltending. While the Memorial Cup may still be six months away, the trade deadline is only eight weeks away. Expect to see Windsor pull the trigger on a deal sometime in the next few weeks.
Even though I thought that the Kitchener Rangers would be pretty good this year, they’ve surprised me with their consistency. Overage Chris MacKinnon is an undersized forward who has led the offensive attack. After having a career season last year, he hasn’t slowed down one bit. Rookie Jeremy Morin (ATL) has been as good as expected. He has very good hands, a quick release and the size and strength to gain position and win the one-on-one battles.
After a great rookie season last year, draft eligible forward Jeff Skinner looks even better this year. He is highly skilled, has great hockey sense and he’s willing to work. He has the tools to be a solid two-way player at the next level. And Swedish import Gabriel Landeskog has had little trouble adjusting to the North American style. He’s a big forward with a strong stride. He should only get better as the season goes on.
There’s nobody questioning Barrie’s forward ranks. Their firepower is among the best in the league, likely surpassed only by Windsor. The only real issue for the Colts was on the backline. But now that they have acquired T.J. Brodie (CAL) and Nick Crawford (BUF) from Saginaw, they’ve addressed those concerns. And by making the trade now rather than at the deadline, there is more time to assimilate the players into the lineup and evaluate whether or not another move will be necessary. This was well played by the Colts front office. Barrie now has to be considered the favorite in the Eastern Conference.
Their biggest challenge in the East will come from Mississauga. Goalie Chris Carrozzi (ATL) has been outstanding. Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, he’s the type of netminder who can steal a playoff series. And the best part is that the Majors have enough talent around him, that he doesn’t always have to be at the top of his game.
Second year winger Devante Smith-Pelly has really emerged this year. He’s playing with a lot more confidence and he’s flourished with the increased ice time. He is a powerfully built forward with a good skill level. He also has the ability to always be around the action. Center Casey Cizikas (NYI) is starting to put all the pieces together. He’s looking like a different player this year. And on the blueline, Cameron Gaunce (COL) is an absolute workhorse. It seems like he’s on the ice every time you look at Mississauga’s defense. He is skilled, strong and smart. Gaunce is the type of player you always put out there in a one-goal game, regardless of whether you’re up or down.
Elsewhere around the league, it’s looking like Belleville may be entering a rebuilding mode. There are already some good building blocks in place, namely young defenseman Stephen Silas and goalie Tyson Teichmann, but the Bulls may need to commit to taking a step back, move a few veteran parts and bring in some youth for the future. Defenseman Shawn Lalonde will be hot commodity at the trade deadline. If they choose to move him, Belleville could get a solid young prospect or two plus a high draft pick.
It’s been an up and down year for the Niagara IceDogs. But two players I really enjoy watching are Chris DeSousa and Alex Friesen. Neither player has great size, but they play with real intensity. DeSousa is an ideal energy-type player who can throw a big hit or score a big goal. And he doesn’t hesitate to drop the gloves and challenge much bigger players. Friesen meanwhile is a strong skater with good hands and good hockey sense. I can see him drawing some interest from NHL clubs who envision him as a fourth-line, special teams player.
Import goalie Petteri Simila (MTL) hasn’t seen a lot of action this year for Niagara, and when he’s been out there, he’s struggled. The Canadiens were happy that he came over to North America this year, but at this juncture, they may be wondering if this will turn into a lost year of development for him.
I keep waiting for the Ottawa 67’s to round into form, but it just hasn’t happened yet. They’ve simply been too inconsistent. After a rough start, Tyler Toffoli has been playing better of late. But he’s capable of a being a lot better. Forwards Ryan Martindale and Cody Lindsay have been bright spots this year, but Ottawa needs more production from their third and fourth liners and they have to get their defense more involved.
In this space next month, look for some thoughts on the Western Hockey League as well as some updates from the college ranks.