As the 2004-05 QMJHL season begins, there will likely be a change at the top of the standings in the Atlantic Division. The Cape Breton Screaming Eagles and P.E.I. Rocket, who were at or near the top of the standings for much of last season, are now fully engaged in rebuilding mode along with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. The Halifax Mooseheads, who suffered through their worst season in franchise history last season, return with a revamped line-up full of drafted veterans, and look once again to contend for a berth in the Memorial Cup, battling an equally strong Moncton Wildcats team.
Here are some of the key players on each team who are expected to play a key role in their respective franchise’s successes in the upcoming campaign.
Returning much of their young roster from last season, but bringing in a new goaltender, the 2004-05 Titan will continue to experience their growing pains during the ongoing rebuilding and maturing process.
Players to Watch:
Gabriel Bouthillette (G)
Selected by Anaheim, 2004, 7th Round
Bouthillette, the only goaltender selected by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, takes over the reins as the starting goaltender for the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. Last season, Bouthillette served as the backup goaltender for the Gatineau Olympiques, the eventual QMJHL representative in the Memorial Cup. Bouthillette did not see much time between the pipes for the Olympiques last season, playing behind Philadelphia prospect David Tremblay for much of the year, but in the time he did play, the 6’3 goaltender was spectacular, compiling an impressive record of 17 wins, two losses, and four ties in 27 games, albeit playing behind the very experienced Gatineau defensive squad. It will be interesting to see how the native of Sorel, Quebec responds to playing behind a far less experienced Bathurst defensive six.
Mathieu Roy (F)
Draft eligible in 2005
Roy burst onto the scene with a mediocre Titan squad last season, putting up a team high for rookies, with 19 goals and 40 points in his first season in the QMJHL, spending time on the top two lines. The 6’0 forward also spent time in most special teams situations, and will be relied on by the still young and inexperienced squad to provide leadership and production in all facets of the game. If he adapts well to his increased role, permanently playing on the top line, the 18-year-old forward’s value is sure to rise.
Mathieu Carle (D)
Draft eligible in 2006
Not eligible until the 2006 NHL Entry Draft thanks to a birthday in late September 1987, Carle already ranks as one of the top defensemen on the Titan roster. A first round selection by Bathurst in the 2003 QMJHL Midget Draft, Carle made the Titan roster out of training camp. Slowly working his way up the team’s depth chart, Carle compiled a solid 11 goals (most among rookie defensemen in the league) and 12 assists, whilst maintaining a solid -9 rating on a team that missed the playoffs, all for a 16-year-old rookie. Carle will be thrust into the top defensive pairing on the still-young Bathurst defense, and will look to continue his progress before his draft year.
Cape Breton Screaming Eagles
After failing to win a playoff series with a strong line-up and Marc-Andre Fleury in goal last season, the Eagles begin the retooling process, losing much of their offence from last season, though they remain strong within their own zone.
Players to Watch:
Martin Houle (G)
Selected by Philadelphia, 2004, 8th Round
Houle begins the 2004-2005 campaign free from the competition with Marc-Andre Fleury that he has been forced to deal with since joining the Screaming Eagles two seasons ago. The starting job is now officially his, no questions asked. How he will react to such responsibility is already known, given his very strong play in the first half of last season during Fleury’s stint with the Pittsburgh Penguins. With five defensemen returning from last year’s team, Houle will have plenty of experienced help in the defensive zone. The Screaming Eagles offense, however, is far weaker compared to last season (four of their top six forwards have either moved on to other teams, or to other leagues), and thus Houle may have to steal a game or two along the line to get the Screaming Eagles into the top half of the league standings.
Adam Pardy (D)
Selected by Calgary, 2004, 6th Round
Pardy was one of the biggest surprises in the 2003 Eagles season. The 6’4 stay-at-home defenseman, acquired the season before from the Halifax Mooseheads in the now infamous “boomerang trade”, was not expected to contend for a roster spot. Making the team out of training camp as a spare defender, Pardy eventually worked his way into the line-up, mixing a physical game with defensive responsibility, and found his way into the team’s top two pairings. As the season progressed, so to did his offensive game, as he compiled 16 points. Pardy will look to continue to play a key role in the Screaming Eagles plans at both end of the ice, and will look to add more offence, filling in for the departure of Philadelphia draft pick Alexandre Picard, fellow Calgary prospect Tim Ramholt, and over-ager Steve Villeneuve.
Stephen Dixon (F)
Selected by Pittsburgh, 2003, 7th Round
Dixon, a Pittsburgh prospect, surprised many people last season by cracking Team Canada’s World Junior roster, playing center on the fourth line. With the Eagles, Dixon continued improving all facets of the game. For the third straight season, the solid, two-way forward saw his offensive stats grow, while his defensive responsibilities improved as well. Always trusted on to win the key faceoff (he won 58 percent of all of his draws last season), Dixon will be counted on even more by the Screaming Eagles to provide leadership, and shoulder much of the offensive load for the team.
After a miserable rebuilding season where the Mooseheads missed the playoffs, they return this season as one of the championship favourites, as they regained their three star players from Cape Breton, and finally sport a healthy line-up.
Players to Watch:
Jason Churchill (G)
Selected by San Jose, 2004, 4th Round
The lanky San Jose goaltending prospect from Newfoundland returns to the Mooseheads as the starting goaltender for the second consecutive year. Last season, he was thrown to the fire in his first season as a starter, putting up 15 wins in 53 starts, while posting a respectable 3.73 goals against average. However, this season, the positionally-strong, composed Churchill has a veteran defensive core in front of him, a high-powered forward unit further up the ice, and will thus not have to be solely relied upon to save the day. If he can progress from last year’s respectable performance, and gets the veteran help that is present on the roster, Churchill could lead his team deep into the playoffs.
Petr Vrana (F)
Selected by New Jersey, 2003, 2nd Round
Vrana suffered through a painful first season as Halifax captain. He saw his offensive totals fall as a result of a chronic shoulder ailment for much of the season, and it was visually obvious that this injury was adversely affecting his play. His perseverance to fight through his injury was not enough to carry his team into the playoffs last season, though. This season, armed with a contract from New Jersey, a surgically repaired shoulder, and a rejuvenated offence (which includes his former linemate, Vancouver prospect François-Pierre Guenette, who played last season with Cape Breton), things are looking up for the diminutive but feisty Halifax captain.
Marc-André Bernier (F)
Selected by Vancouver, 2003, 2nd Round
Bernier returns to Halifax after one year spent with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, where he saw his offensive numbers decline (he put up 27 goals in 58 games one year ago, compared to 29 the year before). In spite of his decline, he still scored many clutch goals (ten were of the game-winning variety). Swamped by numerous talented forwards with Cape Breton, he faces the same problem again in Halifax, though he is a year older, and has a World Junior selection camp behind him as well. He will continue to see big minutes, and plenty of powerplay time with Halifax. If he can work on his aggressiveness in the offensive zone, the stock of the 6’3 Laval native should continue to rise.
For the third year in a row, the Moncton Wildcats will likely ice a team in the top half of the standings, thanks largely to a numerous key veterans returning from last season’s squad.
Players to Watch:
Martins Karsums (F)
Selected by Boston, 2004, 2nd Round
The Latvian may be small in stature, but he more than makes up for his diminutiveness in his high skill level and desire to play a physical game. Playing far larger than he physically is at 5’10, he is not afraid to hit everything in sight, looking like a tank (albeit, a small tank) on skates, and this willingness to engage in physical play was one of the key reasons the Boston Bruins drafted him so high in 2004. Karsums returns to Moncton for his second season with the team he notched 30 goals for one year ago. With even greater ice time and in-game responsibility, Karsums will look to increase those numbers again this season. Playing with a talented offensive core, that is a definite possibility.
Adam Pineault (F)
Selected by Columbus, 2004, 2nd Round
Once touted as a potential first round NHL draft pick, Pineault saw his rating fall dramatically after a disappointing 2003-04 campaign playing for Boston College, where he notched only four goals. Pineault decided that one year in the NCAA was enough, and has joined the QMJHL team that drafted him fourth overall in the 2002 QMJHL draft. It will be interesting to see how Pineault adapts to the completely different game that is offered by the QMJHL, a league that he shunned for two full seasons. He will look to show the skill that had the scouts buzzing back in 2003.
Steve Bernier (F)
Selected by San Jose, 2003, 1st Round
San Jose’s 16th overall selection in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft went through an up-and-down season one year ago, seeing his offensive production decline to the still-strong 36 goals in 66 games. He kicked his play back up a couple of notches in the playoffs, helping lead the Wildcats to their first QMJHL final, until they were defeated by Gatineau in five games. The hulking power forward, who was chosen first overall in the 2001 QMJHL draft, is the Wildcats leader on the ice, and if Moncton is to go the final step, he will have to be back on his game, mixing offensive skill with responsible, disciplined physical play, that led to his first round selection in 2003.
The Rocket got to the second round of the playoffs in their first season in Charlottetown, but after losing many of their key players from last season, the Rocket face a rebuilding season. Strong in goal, but weak on the point, the Rocket’s goaltenders could be in for a long season.
Players to Watch:
Ryan Mior (G)
Eligible in 2005
As a 16-year-old rookie last season, Ryan Mior impressed with his composure under pressure. He pressed two veteran goaltenders (first Sebastien Caron, then Tampa Bay draft-pick Jonathan Boutin) very hard for playing time, posting a solid record of 13 wins, nine losses, and two ties in 28 appearances for the Rocket. The positionally strong Mior will again be locked in a battle with Boutin for the starting job with the Rocket, in a year where they are not expected to contend. How Mior performs under the pressure of a fight for playing time, and a less-than-stellar supporting cast, will be interesting to see.
David Laliberté (F)
Selected by Philadelphia, 2004, 2nd Round
The P.E.I. power forward played admirably in the first half of last season, but fell off badly down the stretch, notching only five goals in the second half of the season, to finish with 21 for the season. Still, as a 17-year-old rookie, Laliberté gained experience on a solid squad, and played in all situations. Defensively responsible and a physical hitter, Laliberté will be relied upon heavily by his relatively inexperienced teammates to lead by example and fill the net if the Rocket are to have any hope of making the playoffs this season.
Marc-André Gragnani (D)
Eligible in 2005
The 17-year-old defenseman from Ile Bizard, Quebec, takes over the No. 1 defenseman role by default this season after the departure of five veteran defensemen from last season. Gragnani, who has played only 61 games in his QMJHL career, has played in more games than the rest of the defensive unit he is playing with this season, and that could lead to many long nights –- but lots of ice time – for the young defender to hone his skills. Though he may be not be large (6’1, 180 pounds), he is quite mobile and shows great composure in the defensive end, as well as creativity in the offensive end. This season will be a showcase for Gragnani’s skills, even if by default.
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