A defending champ, a host unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs earlier than expected, a former champ crashing the party one year early, and the new kid on the block — out of 59 teams from nine Canadian provinces and four U.S. states, the 2012 CHL championship will be contested by a quartet of squads that couldn't be more different — save for the common goal of raising the Memorial Cup.
The host-club Shawinigan Cataractes is one of two squads representing the QMJHL, along with the defending Memorial Cup champion and two-time QMJHL champion Saint John Sea Dogs. They'll welcome the WHL champion Edmonton Oil Kings and the OHL champion London Knights in the MasterCard Memorial Cup from May 18, 2012 to May 27, 2012.
The house money is on the Sea Dogs repeating, as they return almost their entire roster from last year's tournament victory over the host Mississauga St-Michael's Majors. But the other three squads all bring something different to the table: whether it's home-fan advantage, a dominant goaltender, or the much-debated Hunter Hockey, this year's tournament should provide plenty of interest and competitive action.
Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL)
As the host city, the Cataractes had an automatic berth in the Memorial Cup. But, like most recent host squads, the club fully intended to enter the tournament through the front door.
Unfortunately, the season hasn't worked out the way the club hoped. After finishing the season with a 45-16-3-4 record, the club was unceremoniously dumped in the second round of the QMJHL playoffs by the Chicoutimi Sagueneens. And depending upon how you perceive the half-full or half-empty glass, the club is either extremely well rested or it's completely stale after having roughly one month off.
The early ouster may serve to stoke the club's collective competitive fires. And that, combined with a solid measure of offensive talent, could ensure that the Cataractes holds its own.
Shawinigan is extremely talented up front with Kirill Kabonov (NYI), Michael Bournival (COL), Michael Chaput (CLB), and Anton Zlobin leading the offensive charge. The Cataractes fortified its roster after the World Junior Championships obtaining the tournament's top blueliner — Brandon Gormley (PHX) — from the Moncton Wildcats, along with Morgan Ellis (MTL). The time off may also serve as a blessing in disguise as Gormley had not been fully healthy entering the playoffs, but looks to enter the finals at 100 per cent — a fully functional Gormley will certainly make a difference.
The Cataractes also added another significant component to its organization in the form of ex-NHL coach Bob Hartley, who has joined the team as an unofficial advisor. This came amidst a turbulent period after Shawinigan was eliminated from playoff contention and rumours abounded regarding head coach Eric Veilleux's job status.
Shawinigan finished the season ranked fifth overall in the CHL Top 10.
Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)
The Oil Kings are a wonderful success story, reaching the Memorial Cup final in only its fifth year in the WHL. The club finished with a 50-15-0-7 record to end the regular season atop the WHL standings. And they enter this tournament as potentially the hottest club out of the four. The club rattled off a 22-game winning streak spanning across the final 11 games of the season and the first 11 playoff contests.
The Oil Kings are a club that's built from the back-end out, led by netminder Laurent Brossoit (CAL). The Surrey, BC native played in 61 games for the Edmonton squad this season and relished the unbelievable workload, finishing second in the WHL with a 2.47 goals against average en route to tying for the league lead in wins with 42.
In the WHL final, Edmonton managed to grind out a seven-game victory by using grit and depth to wear down the high-flying Portland Winterhawks — a quality that will serve it well facing offensively deep rosters like Saint John's and London. The club's depth is its greatest strength, as they can effectively roll three scoring lines, without any one serving as a primary focus.
The Oil Kings have assembled a deep and talented defensive corps to play in front of Brossoit. The club is led by Canada's World Junior standout Mark Pysyk (BUF) and Keegan Lowe (CAR). Draft eligible blueliner Griffin Reinhart also eats up a lot of ice time and has done so effectively.
It is important to note that Edmonton enters the tournament missing a key cog having lost Dylan Wruck to injury. However, his big presence in the lineup has been replaced, to an extent, by the late-season addition of Travis Ewanyk (EDM).
Edmonton finished the season ranked fourth overall in the CHL Top 10.
London Knights (OHL)
The Knights have been building for another Memorial Cup run, but the consensus view was that the club was a year away from staking its claim on the trophy it last won (its only victory) in 2005 when it was the host city and OHL champion. A combination of young players stepping up and the opportunity to obtain key cogs by giving up relatively little has accelerated this process — all the while not mortgaging the club's future.
The Knights are built on a foundation of suffocating defense with opportunistic, counter-attacking offense. And like the Oil Kings, that starts between the pipes where OHL MVP Michael Houser one-upped his Edmonton counterpart by playing in 62 games, winning 46 and posting a 2.47 goals against average.
London features its own Big Three on the blue line, led by the shutdown duo of Jarred Tinordi (MTL) and Scott Harrington (PIT). They're joined by this year's first-overall import selection, Olli Maatta, who has enjoyed a breakout performance in the playoffs to date, with 23 points in 19 games.
Up front, the Knights pride themselves on rolling four lines. An already strong offensive squad (featuring 45-goal scorer Seth Griffith and Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Vladislav Namestnikov) was buoyed by the acquisition of Austin Watson (NAS) and Greg McKegg (TOR). The presence of complementary young depth players such as Max Domi, Bo Horvat, Andreas Athanasiou, and the Rupert twins allow the Knights to roll four lines — a fact that may serve the team well as they drew a tough three-games-in-four-nights schedule.
The Knights are known for playing "Hunter Hockey", a style that has helped London avoid the traditional junior cycle and which translated to the NHL when Knights' coach Dale Hunter assumed the mantle of the NHL's Washington Capitals' head coach mid-way through the season. As much a personality-driven style (as evidenced by their ability to attract marquee names to its roster) as one that is technical, the Knights hardly skipped a beat when Mark Hunter stepped behind the bench to replace his brother. Dale is now back with the franchise as a self-professed fan, having resigned his post in Washington, but expect both Hunters (along with Dale's son and former Knights' captain Dylan who is also behind the bench) to play a key role in London's fortunes.
London finished the season ranked third overall in the CHL Top 10.
Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJH)
Saint John is making its return trip to the Memorial Cup final and are the odds-on favorite to claim the title and repeat as CHL champions.
The Sea Dogs only lost one key player from last year's championship squad in blueliner Simon Despres (PIT). But the club countered that loss with the mid-season arrival of Charlie Coyle (MIN) who stepped out of the collegiate ranks into the QMJHL lineup and led the club in post-season scoring — earning the QMJHL MVP award en route. Boston University's loss is truly Saint John's gain.
The club weathered the loss of Despres, in large part thanks to the continued superlative play of Nathan Beaulieu (MTL). In addition, Charles-Olivier Roussel (NAS) and Kevin Gagne stepped up their roles to fill the void.
Up front, the club is paced by the outstanding Jonathan Huberdeau (FLA), who enters the playoffs healthy after missing a large chunk of the season due to injury. He made the most of his limited time, racking up 72 points in only 37 games. Combined with Coyle, and complemented by offensive talents such as Stanislav Galiev (WAS), Tomas Jurco (DET), and Zack Phillips (MIN), the Sea Dogs are talented, experienced, and deep — all elements that often equal success in the finals.
The Sea Dogs are a club coming together at the right time. Most of their top players suffered through some injuries and icing a full roster was a rare occurrence. If there is a weakness on the club, it's a minor one in that Mathieu Corbeil (CLB) doesn't exactly match up to some of his counterparts in the tournament. However, if Corbeil can continue the strong play he displayed en route to backstopping the club to the QMJHL title, then Saint John could be hard to beat.
Although the club enjoyed a relatively easy path to the Memorial Cup, a lack of being tested shouldn't be an issue for the squad as it has last year's experience to draw from and their combination of skill, depth, and experience should overcome any minor deficiencies the Sea Dogs may have.
Saint John finished the season ranked first overall in the CHL Top 10.
Glen Erickson and Kevin Forbes contributed to this article.