Ever since the 2012 Memorial Cup host was named last season, the Saint John Sea Dogs and the Shawinigan Cataractes have been on a collision course. Both teams had put forth bids to host the CHL championships when the event rotated into the QMJHL. Most felt that Saint John, having the best regular season record for two seasons in a row at the time and on their way to win the QMJHL championship and the 2011 Memorial Cup, would be named the host for the 2012 Memorial Cup, but it was Shawinigan's bid that ended up winning the day.
With Saint John eager to defend their title and Shawinigan aiming to be the first QMJHL host team to win the Memorial Cup since the Hull Olympiques in 1997, the battle lines were drawn before the puck even dropped on the 2011-12 season. Fittingly, when the smoke of the regular season cleared, Saint John and Shawinigan were ranked first and second in the QMJHL standings, with the Sea Dogs leading the league for a record third consecutive year.
Although Shawinigan found themselves eliminated in the second round of the QMJHL playoffs, they now wait to match up against Saint John on the ice. The Sea Dogs are facing the Rimouski Oceanic in the league championships, the final hurdle to clear before heading to Shawinigan for the Memorial Cup.
As can be expected by the top teams in junior hockey, both Saint John and Shawinigan have rosters studded with NHL talent. Shawinigan's top two centers, Michael Chaput (CLB) and Michael Bournival (COL), have both been drafted, with Chaput joining the Cataractes this season after his former team, the Lewiston MAINEiacs folded. In Saint John, Zack Phillips (MIN) was a first round pick last year and the most recent to join Saint John's NHL prospect fraternity is Danick Gauthier (TB), an overage forward who was signed at the beginning of March during a career season.
In total, there are ten centers in the QMJHL who have their rights owned by NHL teams. These ten are divided between seven QMJHL teams, with aforementioned pair of centers both in Saint John and Shawinigan as well as a duo in Chicoutimi.
At the NHL level, the ten centers are associated with seven NHL squads. The Columbus Blue Jackets, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Ottawa Senators all have a pair of pivot prospects competing in the QMJHL.
Here's a look at the top NHL prospect centers in the QMJHL. All statistics are current as of May 9th.
After Zack Phillips doubled his rookie season totals in his draft year last season, the constant question that was raised when it came to the Fredericton, New Brunswick native was "how much of the production was due to his own talent and how much was it due to the supporting cast in Saint John?" Finding chemistry with fellow draft eligible Jonathan Huberdeau (FLA), the duo helped pace the Sea Dogs to a Memorial Cup win and both players found themselves selected in the first round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
Phillips used the 2011-12 season to prove a lot of his doubters wrong. With many of Saint John's players missing significant time due to injury, Phillips showed that he could produce without playing alongside Huberdeau. In 60 games, Phillips posted 30 goals and 80 points to finish second on the team in scoring. Although this is a slight step down from his draft year production of 95 points, Phillips was a key part of Saint John's attack during the first half of the season when many of his teammates were out of the lineup. In fact, Phillips posted a 22 game point streak stretching from October to December, accumulating 41 points over that period of time.
Moving down to the second line with the addition of Charlie Coyle (MIN) for the second half of the season, Phillips has been equally dangerous in the post season. He currently ranks second in playoff scoring with eight goals and 29 points in 15 games.
Born late in the 1992 calendar year, Phillips is actually eligible to make the jump to pro hockey as early as next season. Already signed to an NHL entry-level-deal with the Minnesota Wild, he should start his professional career in the AHL. While he may never become a star player at the NHL level, Phillips has more than enough skill to contribute as a top six forward in a few years time.
For the Victoriaville Tigres and their captain Phillip Danault, the 2011-12 season certainly did not end as hoped. After a promising season where they finished with the third best record in the league, most assumed that the Tigres were on the cusp of a lengthy playoff run. Unfortunately for Victoriaville, the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, their first round opponent had other plans and the Tigres were eliminated in a four game sweep.
Despite this disappointing conclusion, both Danault and the Tigres had a strong year. Victoriaville improved by 20 points in the standings and Danault's numbers also rose by a modest amount over the previous year. With 18 goals and 71 points in 62 games, Danault finished sixth on his team in points. He also improved his faceoff percentage from 44.5 the previous season to 51 this year. Like most of his team, he struggled in the post season, posting three assists in the four playoff matches.
The 2011-12 season was expected to be the contending year for the Tigres and it will be interesting to see how the Tigres respond in the new season in the fall. A large number of veteran players specifically acquired for the ill-fated playoff run will be graduating from the QMJHL and moving on, leaving a depleted roster behind. Stepping up and taking an even larger role with the team to help replace the lost offense will be Danault's next challenge.
Named team captain as a 17-year-old, it was those intangibles that led Chicago to drafting him in the first round last year. A two-way player who isn't afraid to play the body, Danault epitomizes what one might expect to see from a leader. This dedication and work ethic could also lead Danault to a spot with Team Canada at next year's World Juniors. Invited to the final selection camp last winter, with any luck Danault could crack the roster next winter.
The 2011-12 year has been nothing short of eventful for Michael Bournival. A shoulder injury limited him to just 41 games, but he was healthy enough to play for Team Canada at the World Juniors. Meanwhile, he's captain of his hometown team and guaranteed a berth in the Memorial Cup, but Shawinigan bowed out far earlier than expected in the QMJHL playoffs.
In those 41 games, Bournival scored a career-high 30 goals and finished with 56 points to end up fourth on the Cataractes in scoring. If he hadn't missed so much time, he would have not only blown past career highs in points, but also would have had a decent shot at leading the team in scoring. A two-way force, Bournival had seven goals on the power play and another three coming while shorthanded.
While playing for Team Canada, Bournival appeared in all six games as Canada went on to win the bronze medal. Playing a primarily defensive role, he registered a single assist during the tournament.
Meanwhile in the QMJHL playoffs, he posted a goal and seven points in 11 playoff matches as Shawinigan bowed out in the second round to the Chicoutimi Sagueneens. For a team that finished with the second best record in the league and expected to challenge for the QMJHL championship, the second round elimination came as a surprise and now Bournival and the Cataractes wait for their opponents to be decided before the Memorial Cup in mid May.
As mentioned, Bournival excels at both ends of the ice and is never short on effort. But that hard-nosed style plays works against him at times, with the Shawinigan native never playing in more than 58 games in a season. Turning 20 at the end of May, Bournival already has entry-level contract to start his pro career next season. As such, his appearance in the Memorial Cup represents his last gasp of junior hockey. While he hardly needs anything extra to motivate him on the ice, Bournival is aiming to finish his career in Shawinigan on a high note.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau is proof positive that good things come in small packages. Although slight in stature, the Ottawa native is a constant scoring threat at the QMJHL level. After starting his QMJHL career with his hometown Gatineau Olympiques, Pageau was traded at the mid-season mark to the Chicoutimi Sagueneens this year.
Appearing in 46 games between the two teams, Pageau scored 32 goals and 65 points including seven goals on the power play and two coming while shorthanded. Missing time with injury, his scoring pace would have had him eclipse his previous year's totals of 79 points with ease. In 16 playoff games with Chicoutimi, Pageau scored four goals and 14 points, while still not 100% healthy.
Thanks to his late 1992 birthday, Pageau is eligible to make the jump to pro hockey this fall but he has yet to be signed to a contract by the Senators. One of the top offensive talents in the QMJHL, Pageau's size might be his only detriment. Should he return to the league next season, he could be a favorite to lead the league in scoring.
Like his Shawinigan Cataractes teammates, Michael Chaput is waiting for the league championships in the WHL, OHL, and QMJHL to finish before he finds out who he will be facing in the Memorial Cup. But for Chaput, the time off hasn't been completely wasted as he has recently signed an NHL entry-level-contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Like his teammate Bournival, Chaput is another player who saw his NHL rights traded after being drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers. But for Chaput, his NHL rights haven't been the only thing on the move.
He originally started his QMJHL career with the Lewiston MAINEiacs, however when the team folded last summer, Chaput was selected by Shawinigan in the QMJHL's dispersal draft to bring additional offense to the team's top lines. The 19-year-old has delivered on that promise with 21 goals and 63 points in 57 games to finish second on the team in scoring. During the playoffs, he added another four goals and 12 points in 11 games, again placing him second on the team.
But his post season contributions on their own were not enough to push Shawinigan any farther than the second round and now Chaput waits for the Memorial Cup to begin and his junior career to come to an end. After this season, he's ear-marked to spend some time in the minors. With decent size at 6'2 and 193 lbs, as well as a solid combination of both offensive savvy and attentiveness in his own zone, Chaput could find a pro future in a number of different roles. But his immediate plans are to say goodbye to junior hockey in style at the CHL championship.
An undrafted overager playing in his fourth QMJHL season, it is easy to imagine that Danick Gauthier was considering taking advantage of the CHL's education package and playing CIS hockey next year. Instead, after a career season with the Saint John Sea Dogs, the 20-year-old has signed a contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning and is due to start his pro career in the fall. He's currently gunning for his second consecutive QMJHL championship title with the Saint John Sea Dogs.
In the 153 regular season QMJHL games that he played prior to this year, Gauthier only scored 29 goals and 60 points. As a result, when the physical winger notched 47 goals and 86 points in 66 games this season, it made many people sit up and take notice. Gauthier led the Sea Dogs in scoring and finished sixth in the league, as well as finished second in the league in goals scored. His strong play has continued into the post season, where in 15 playoff games so far, he has 10 goals and 17 points.
Listed at 6'2 and 201 lbs, Gauthier's size and strength allowed him to fight for position on the ice and set up in front of the net, where he could easily slam the puck home or tap in a rebound. Playing a checking line role for most of his QMJHL career, Gauthier's offensive explosion this season could be an indication of untapped scoring potential. As a result, it is hard to say what his future holds or what sort of player he may project to be. In any case, the first step is already taken care of, with Gauthier due to start his pro career in the fall.
Selected out of the Czech Republic last summer, Lukas Sedlak opted to begin his adjustment to the North American game almost immediately and joined the QMJHL. After a strong rookie campaign, the future looks bright for this 6th round pick.
Appearing in 50 games this season, Sedlak's 45 points placed him 14th among QMJHL rookies, although had he appeared in the full 68 games of the season, he would have easily been one of the top ten rookie scorers. Turning 19 during the season, Sedlak was a year or two older than most other QMJHL rookies. On a personal level of development, his 0.9 point-per-game pace was actually an improvement of his prior season with the HC Ceske Budejovice U20 club, where he tallied 27 points in 47 games.
Unafraid to mix it up on the ice, Sedlak placed seventh on Chicoutimi in scoring and his 59% success rate in the faceoff circle led the team. Seeing time on special teams, four of Sedlak's 17 goals came on the power play, while he also tallied a short-handed marker. In the post season, Sedlak appeared in all 18 playoff matches for the Sagueneens and finished with eight points including five goals.
Sedlak missed some time at the mid-season point playing for Team Czech Republic at the World Juniors. Although he was held without a point in six games played, he will be eligible to play with the squad again next year when the tournament heads to Russia.
Sedlak is due to return to Chicoutimi next season where he'll be counted on to be one of the team's top players. Although Sedlak may not be considered to be a pure offensive threat, his two-way play and his unwillingness to back down from a challenge (including three fights this past season) make him an interesting prospect to watch for the future.
Jakub Culek has yet to sign an entry-level deal with the Ottawa Senators and while such an offer may not be guaranteed, should the big Czech pivot be inked to a pro contract, he might consider offering some of his signing bonus to his coach with Rimouski. Like his teammate and fellow Import player Petr Straka (a Columbus prospect), Culek has seen his junior career rebound tremendously under the guidance of new coach Serge Beausoleil.
Culek's rookie season saw him serve notice as a two-way player with size and skill as he posted 47 points in 63 games and was drafted by the Senators. But in his sophomore year, his career seemed to stall and his numbers fell dramatically with only 22 points in 55 games. Luckily for Culek, he was given a new opportunity to make an impression in his third season when Beausoleil took over the coaching reins in Rimouski.
In 55 games this season, Culek equalled his rookie year mark for goals with 13 and finished with 40 points in 55 games. He also played for the Czech Republic at the World Juniors (for the second year in a row) and was tied for second in scoring on the team with a goal and four points in five games. With Rimouski now competing for the QMJHL championship, Culek has four goals and nine points in 19 playoff games.
Listed at 6'3 and 187 lbs, Culek is unafraid to use his frame and plays his best when tasked at shutting down the opposition. Under Beausoleil, he's been used as a trusted penalty killer, where his big frame and relentless checking is a valued asset. Culek has a few rough edges that still need to be polished, notably his skating, but it is easy to imagine him as one day lining up as a checking line forward. However, it is far from guaranteed that he will get an NHL contract. The deadline for signing is June 1st, or Culek's rights will re-enter the draft.
Drafted out of Germany after a strong performance at the 2010 World Juniors as a 17-year-old, Hoefflin made his way to North America soon after the draft to join the QMJHL. Originally playing with the Quebec Remparts, he was traded over the summer and played this season with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.
A scoring forward, Hoefflin continues to adjust to play in North America. His two seasons in the QMJHL have produced remarkably similar stat lines, with his rookie season boasting 14 goals and 45 points in 54 games, while the past year resulted in 18 goals and 42 points in 59 games. In each season, he was also tapped to play for his country at the World Juniors, including this past winter where he posted two goals and five points in five games (tied for seventh on the team) as Germany won the Division 1 championship. In the QMJHL playoffs this year, Hoefflin had two goals and four points in six games as the Titan bowed out in the first round.
Offensively creative and a tremendous skater, it still remains to be seen how Hoefflin's skills will translate to the pro level. Not overly large or particularly strong, at times the German struggled fighting through checks and finding room on the ice. Turning 20 years old next month, now is the time for the Blackhawks to make a decision about his future. This upcoming season will be crucial as he could return to the QMJHL as an overager or begin his pro career.
It is not often that one might say that a smaller role for a prospect actually was a better situation, but that appears to be the case for Brent Andrews. A year ago, on a basement-dwelling Halifax Mooseheads squad, necessity forced Andrews into a top six role, something that he wasn't particularly suited for. A season later with some additional depth on a much improved Halifax squad, Andrews found his niche as a shutdown center and penalty-killing specialist.
In total, Andrews marginally improved on his career totals over the previous season, finishing with 13 goals and 30 points in 61 games (one more goal than the previous year). In 17 playoff matches, he had another two goals and four points. But scoring goals isn't what Andrews is counted on; instead he's counted on to help prevent goals from being scored. With a 57 percent success rate in the faceoff circle and leading the QMJHL with five shorthanded goals, Andrews is a defensive stalwart for the Mooseheads. He was a crucial part of Halifax's penalty kill that finished sixth in the league with a 79.4 percent success rate.
A 19-year-old due to return to Halifax next season, Andrews will once again be counted on to fill an important checking line role and lead the penalty kill. With the Mooseheads expecting to be one of the QMJHL's top teams next year, Andrews' profile will benefit from increased attention. It is hard to say if his game is strong enough to merit an NHL contract, but that decision does not have to be made by Nashville until June of 2013.