2016 Memorial Cup Preview: Star-studded group of prospects go head-to-head in Red Deer

By Chris Roberts
Mitchell Marner - London Knights; Francis Perron - Rouyn-Noranda Huskies; Nolan Patrick - Brandon Wheat Kings; Adam Helewka - Red Deer Rebels - 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup

Photo: The 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup will feature a number of top NHL prospects, including Mitch Marner of the London Knights, Francis Perron on the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, Nolan Patrick of the Brandon Wheat Kings, and Adam Helewka of the Red Deer Rebels (courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images, Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images, and Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

 

 

The stars will be out at the 98th Memorial Cup, and it is expected that the ratings will reflect that. Between the four teams participating, there will be 26 NHL-drafted prospects present in Red Deer for the year-end tournament of champions.

But it is not only drafted prospects. With the NHL Draft just over a month away there will be eyes on draft-eligible prospects, prominently London’s Matthew Tkachuk and Olli Juolevi. The Brandon Wheat Kings, meanwhile, boast a youthful group that features two standout 2017-eligible prospects, Nolan Patrick and Stelio Mattheos.

The tournament opens Friday night with the host Red Deer Rebels playing the OHL champion London Knights. It is the first time the MasterCard Memorial Cup has been hosted by an Alberta team since 1974 when it was in Calgary.

How They Got Here

Red Deer Rebels: The Rebels were awarded the right to host the Memorial Cup in October of 2014, beating out the Vancouver Giants, who hosted in 2007 and were one of only two host teams to win the tournament in the past 10 years. Since winning the bid, the Rebels have been tactfully loading up to compete with the best teams in the CHL. They traded for Russian pivot Ivan Nikolishin prior to the 2015-16 season and selected skilled center Michael Spacek (WPG) in last June’s CHL Import Draft. Before the trade deadline the Rebels acquired high-profile prospects Jake DeBrusk (BOS) and Adam Helewka (SJS), bolstering an already impressive offense. They reached the third round of the WHL playoffs, beating Calgary in five games and Regina in seven before being bounced by the eventual champions, the Brandon Wheat Kings, in the Eastern Conference Championship.

Brandon Wheat Kings: Brandon’s general manager, Kelly McCrimmon, has done a tremendous job building the Wheat Kings through the draft; the team’s top three scorers in the regular season – Jayce Hawryluk (FLA), Nolan Patrick (2017) and John Quenneville (NJD) – were all drafted and developed in-house. The team has made slight changes to its roster throughout the past season, but has mostly kept its core together. After losing the first two games of its first round series against the Edmonton Oil Kings, the Wheat Kings lost just three games combined the rest of the way, posting a 16-3 record during that stretch en route to a WHL championship. They won each of their first three games in the final round against Seattle in overtime.

London Knights: If it seems like the OHL’s London Knights are Memorial Cup contenders every year, it is because they are. It has been two seasons since the team has been in the tournament, but they appeared in three consecutive Memorial Cups prior to that, finishing fourth in 2014, third in 2013, and second in 2012. This year’s version of the Knights boasts the top line in the CHL – Mitch Marner (TOR), Christian Dvorak (ARI), and Matthew Tkachuk (2016) – as well as a highly skilled group of draft-eligible prospects. Like Brandon, London’s toughest challenge in the playoffs came in the first round, where they moved past the Owen Sound Attack in six games. The Knights then won their next 12 games, sweeping three consecutive series en route to the championship. Not surprisingly, Marner, Tkachuk and Dvorak were the top three scorers in the OHL playoffs, combining for an absurd 119 points in 18 games.

Rouyn-Noranda Huskies: Maybe the least talked about team in the Memorial Cup, but certainly one of the more deserving all the same. The Huskies lost just four games in the playoffs, and 14 in 68 regular season games. The team’s general manager and head coach, Gilles Bouchard, has built his team by utilizing every avenue possible – the draft, Import Draft and trades. And some low-risk picks have paid off; the team drafted A.J. Greer (COL) in the 11th round of the 2013 QMJHL Entry Draft, despite the fact he was committed to Boston University. He joined the team midway through this season and was one of the Huskies’ best players in the QMJHL playoffs. Rouyn-Noranda, in fact, has the most NHL-drafted players of all four teams in the Memorial Cup.

Players to Watch

Red Deer

Jake DeBrusk should be the most familiar name on the Rebels; his dad, Louie, is a veteran of 400+ NHL games while Jake was a first round pick of the Boston Bruins in the 2015 NHL Draft. He is a little more skilled than his dad, known more for his goal scoring than his physicality. In 37 regular season games with the Rebels after being acquired midseason from Swift Current, DeBrusk recorded 39 points, then recorded 17 in 17 playoff games.

Only one Rebel outscored DeBrusk in the postseason and that was Adam Helewka, who had 18 points (nine goals, nine assists). Through his four-year WHL career, the Burnaby, BC native had 238 points in 244 games. Helewka is a 6-foot-2, 205-pound winger who plays a physical game and should be able to energize the home crowd.

The Rebels receive strong secondary scoring from forwards like Spacek, Adam Musil (STL) and undrafted but highly-skilled Luke Philp, a 20-year-old who was acquired from Kootenay.

Haydyn Fleury (CAR), the seventh overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, is an all-situations defender who had 41 points in 56 regular season games. The former Canadian World Junior defenseman has an above-average skating stride and uses his 6-foot-3 frame effectively.

Brandon

Though the Wheat Kings have five NHL-drafted players on their roster, the one to watch will be a player not eligible until the 2017 draft: Nolan Patrick. The Wheat Kings selected the Manitoba native fourth overall in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft and he quickly became the team’s best pure goal scorer. In the past two seasons, Patrick has 71 goals in the regular season; he added 13 in 21 playoff games this year. If he had been born four days earlier, he might be challenging for a Top-5 selection in this June’s NHL Draft.

Another undrafted player to keep an eye on is defenseman Kale Clague, who was taken two picks after Patrick in the 2013 draft. Though he struggled to meet expectations early in the season, he progressed as the year went along and was a stud in the playoffs, leading the team’s rearguards in points with 14 in 21 games. Clague is far from the Wheat Kings top defenseman, however; that tag belongs to Russian Ivan Provorov (PHI), who led all WHL defensemen in scoring this season with 73 points in 62 games. By all accounts, Provorov is ready to play in the NHL as early as next season.

Jayce Hawryluk, Reid Duke (MIN) and John Quenneville round out a high-octane forward group, all of whom will turn pro next season.

London

The team’s top line of Marner, Dvorak and Tkachuk will garner most of the attention from opposition defenders, and rightly so. It is such a perfect line in many ways, primarily that all three players boast considerable skill. Marner has produced countless highlight reel plays throughout the season en route to regular season and playoff MVP awards, Dvorak has incredible smarts and a quick release, while Tkachuk adds a physical element to the line.

But London isn’t simply a one-line team. In addition to draft-eligible Tkachuk, the Knights have four players who could all be selected within the first two rounds of the upcoming NHL Draft – defensemen Olli Juolevi and Victor Mete as well as forwards Cliff Pu and Max Jones. A big-bodied American, Jones had 52 points in the regular season but was suspended for 12 playoff games following a headshot. During his absence, Pu stepped up, finishing fourth on the team in playoff goals with eight, raising his draft stock considerably. Juolevi, a puck-moving defenseman, is a consensus Top-10 pick in the draft who made a name for himself at the World Junior Championship with the gold medal-winning Finns.

The Knights have the only noteworthy goalie in the Memorial Cup in regard to NHL status. Tyler Parsons is ranked third amongst North American netminders; he posted a 2.15 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage in 18 playoff appearances.

Rouyn-Noranda

The Huskies most dynamic forward is undoubtedly Francis Perron (OTT). The 20 year old accumulated 108 points in 62 regular season games and led the QMJHL in postseason scoring with 33 points in 18 games. The shifty forward is aided by a strong offensive group, however; Martins Dzierkals (TOR) and Timo Meier (SJS) filled out the team’s two European roster spots and were incredibly effective. Meier, acquired at the trade deadline, had an astounding 51 points in 29 games post-trade. At 6-foot and 200 pounds, Meier also adds a physical element to an otherwise undersized forward core.

Rouyn-Noranda might also boast the best defensive core in the Memorial Cup. Jeremy Lauzon (BOS) is an all-around defender who utilizes his 6-foot-2, 193-pound frame well, but he also has great vision, recording 40 assists in 46 games this season. Lauzon played just nine playoff games, missing time due to injury, but has recently been cleared to play. Philippe Myers (PHI) and Nikolas Brouillard were passed over in recent drafts (Myers signed with the Flyers as a free agent), but posted a combined 36 points in the playoffs.

Follow Chris Roberts on Twitter via @ChrisRoberts_7