Prospects make Mooseheads a strong contender for the playoffs

By Glen Jackson

The Halifax Mooseheads joined the QMJHL in 1994-95 and, even in the early years as an expansion team, they have qualified for post-season play in every season except for 2003-04.

The franchise has come within one win of qualifying for the Memorial Cup on two occasions (1996-97 and 2002-03), and in 1999-00 they took part in the championships as the host team and held their own, winning the first two games before eventually being eliminated in the semi-finals.

Jean-Sebastian Giguere, Alex Tanguay, Ramzi Abid, Ladislav Nagy and a number of other NHL players and prospects have worn the Mooseheads jersey since the franchise was born, and the 2004-05 roster appears to be poised to deliver several more players down that path.

The Moosheads, in fact, have 10 NHL draftees, the most of any team in the Q. The Moncton Wildcats and Rimouski Oceanic are tied for second with eight drafted players each, but the majority of teams in the league boast only three or four.

With that level of NHL recognized, over-18 talent, it’s not surprising that the Mooseheads are on track for one of their best seasons in franchise history.

That doesn’t mean it’s not been without some bumps along the way.

Mid-season coaching switch improved standing

On January 4th, 2005, Moosheads owner, former NHL star Bobby Smith, and General Manager Marcel Patenaude decided to fire long time coach Shawn MacKenzie.

At the time the team was 18-10-6-2 and in second place in the Atlantic Division after a poor December. Up to and including games played this past weekend, the Mooseheads were 38-15-9-2 and are first in the Atlantic Division and second overall in the Q, just one point behind the Oceanic with a game in hand.

The record of 20-5-3-0 under replacement coach and former NHL player Al MacAdam is a slight improvement over what MacKenzie did, however, it’s an owner’s prerogative to place a friend and former teammate into the head coaching role on their team.

At the time of the coaching change, the Mooseheads said the reason for the switch was that they felt the team wasn’t playing up to its potential, and that their younger players were not getting the opportunity to develop at an acceptable rate. Of course, with 10 NHL draftees, experienced overage players, and strong fan support expecting a win every time out, that second issue has continued to be a problem.

In an attempt to rectify this issue, MacAdam cycles all four lines on a regular basis whereas MacKenzie often went with three.

“Since Al is here, I think he’s a great coach and we play great under him, (but) I did like Shawn a lot, I had lots of ice time with him.” said Jan Steber (TOR) after the team’s March 5th loss to their division rival from Moncton. “For me I have good games when there’s not too many penalties, because I don’t play on power play, I don’t play on PK’s, just five on five.”

That sort of statement is simply evidence of the natural desire that all hockey players have who wish to play as much as possible, in every situation, so that they can develop as quickly as possible. Of course, the NHL franchises that contribute to the junior teams for that development hope for as much experience for their prospects as well.

There is no completely acceptable balance between success, keeping the fans happy and maximizing the development of each player that puts on a Mooseheads uniform, but overall the team has adapted well to Coach MacAdam’s style and is maintaining the balance as well as possible.

“He’s got a different approach in the game,” said Marc-Andre Bernier (VAN) of his new coach. “He’s been a forward in the National Hockey League so he wants more offense from us. He likes the transition which works with our team because we have a lot of speed and we’re using it.”

Goaltending controversy

In goal, this same time-sharing issue has been quietly increasing in importance ever since the Mooseheads acquired goaltender Jeremy Duchesne (eligible for the 2005 NHL Entry Draft) in a trade from the Victoriaville Tigres in early January.

Since joining the team he has won the praise of both fans and the team by playing to a 9-0-1 record and even suffering a broken nose in a fight on February 20th against fellow goalie Maxime Joyal from the Quebec Remparts. Duchesne’s play with the Mooseheads has shot him up the goaltending leader board and he now has the fourth best goals against average in the league at 2.50.

Meanwhile, San Jose Sharks goaltending draft pick Jason Churchill has done well for the Mooseheads all season, playing almost twice as many games as Duchesne overall, and sporting a 2.56 goals against average, good enough for sixth best in the league, as well as a 27-17-8 record. Churchill has fairly good technique but he is an average skater who is not too strong with the puck.

The unexpected surge in Duchesne’s play has potentially created a bigger dilemma for MacAdam than spreading ice time among his skaters. Some teams would love to have this problem, and some players don’t see it as a problem in the least.

“No, I don’t think (it’s a problem) at all. We have two good goaltenders. It’s good to know that they’re both playing well. We need that going into the playoffs,” said 19-year-old power-forward Austin Corredato, who was acquired by the team in a trade with Val D’Or shortly before Duchesne arrived.

But goaltending controversies being what they are, it’s still something that gains attention, with the potential of becoming a distraction.

“It’s always tough when you have two great goaltenders like that. You never know what to do,” said Bernier.

Steber concurred. “I think both goalies are great, they can play every game, (but) it doesn’t matter to us as players.”

Nonetheless, with the playoffs drawing near, Coach MacAdam will have to decide on some sort of plan for handling the two tenders who both appear ready for a playoff run.

Recent play

The Mooseheads entered this past weekend as they left it in their quest for first place overall in the Q, just one point behind Sidney Crosby and the Oceanic, who have played one more game than Halifax.

On Friday night against the last place Acadie-Bathurst Titan, Duchesne backstopped the team to a 1-1 tie in a game with tight defense and relatively few scoring chances, but also a game that most would have expected the Mooseheads to win.

“We got a point but it wasn’t the way we wanted,” said Corredato after the game. “It was pretty disappointing. We’ve got to learn from it and just try to get better from here.”

Asked if they perhaps underestimated the Titan, Corredato thought not. “I don’t know if it’s that. We came out flat again against them. It’s definitely not a good tie but it’s a point, and we just have to improve a bit.”

“Not well at all,” said Corredato, who sees time on a line with Petr Vrana (NJ) and Daniel Sparre, when asked of his own play that night. “I’m pretty upset with my game. I’ve just try to get back out there next game and play better, try to respond well for next game.”

On Saturday night the Mooseheads outshot the Moncton Wildcats 48-20 with Churchill in net this time, but they lost 2-1 when the Wildcats scored two third period goals.

Putting in a strong performance for Moncton in stopping 47 shots was pure butterfly goalie, Corey Crawford (CHI).

“We just couldn’t score all game, Crawford played well,” said Steber.

“Tonight we played a much better game than we played last night I think,” added Bernier. “The shots were there and we had a lot of scoring chances, and Crawford was great. It was one of those nights when nothing goes in.”

Steber was happy with the play of his line in both games (on Friday, Steber scored the lone Mooseheads goal and was the game’s first star), if not the result.

“The first period was great. We were skating, we had our speed, and we didn’t give them any chances and we played pretty good, we just couldn’t score.”

The Mooseheads generated numerous scoring chances including a breakaway that Sparre deked Crawford out on, but with a move that put him just past the goal line and unable to tap it home. The long breakout pass that sprung Sparre came from Corredato deep in the Halifax zone.

“It can be frustrating a little bit, but we have to think positive all the time,” said Bernier of the missed opportunities.

Pair of ‘Nucks

The Vancouver Canucks have twice found valuable prospects in Halifax in the form of Jason King and Brandon Reid, both of whom played with the Mooseheads in 1999-00 when the team played in the Memorial Cup. So at the 2003 NHL Entry Draft they didn’t hesitate in picking up a few more members of the herd in Bernier and Francois-Pierre Guenette.

Mooseheads assistant captain Guenette has been centering a line with Bernier on his right wing, and both players are top five in scoring for their team.

Bernier was asked if the two players discuss their potential future with the Canucks.

“Yeah for sure, we always think about it. It’s our dream. Not only that it’s the point we want to reach,” he said.

“With the strike and all that stuff we try to focus on our season and the coming playoffs that are coming up. I would love to go far again this year,” said Bernier, speaking of his and Guenette’s one year hiatus from Halifax, spent with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in 2003-04.

That hiatus was a by-product of one of the stranger trades in hockey history which involved seven players swapping teams and, for four of them including Guenette and Bernier, spending just one season away before returning to their original teams.

Guenette and his 21 goals and 34 assists is third best on the team and highest among drafted players, while Bernier has 25 goals and 21 assists and is fifth in Mooseheads scoring.

Both players have good offensive instincts, with Guenette the feistier of the two, often driving the net and forcing the play. The much bigger Bernier plays well positionally as well as being strong on special teams. His greatest asset has been goal scoring where he is tied on the team for game winning goals with four, leads in power play goals with 11, and is second in short handed tallies with three.

The rest of the Mooseheads NHL draftees

Vrana, the 2002-03 QMJHL rookie of the year and second round pick of the Devils in 2003, has shown himself to be a skilled two-way forward from the start. In January of this year he scored a memorable game-winning goal against the US in the bronze medal match at the World Junior Championships. In the Q this season he has amassed 46 points (14 goals, 32 assists) in 54 games. The Mooseheads captain seamlessly alternates between soft hands on offense to relentless checking on defense.

The best defenseman on the Mooseheads, Jimmy Sharrow (ATL), has 44 points in 64 games as well as a +22 rating. He joins the rush, often carrying the puck into the opposing zone and is very strong on his skates. In fact, more than any other Mooseheads player, Sharrow looks like a pro playing on a junior team at both ends of the rink.

In the third round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft the Philadelphia Flyers selected defenseman Alexandre Picard. The 6’2, 214 pound rearguard has developed into a steady first pairing defenseman. Not only is he extremely capable in his own end, he is eighth on the Mooseheads in scoring with 35 points (14 of them goals) in 62 games. He also has four game winning goals and a +21 rating.

The Maple Leafs Steber is emerging as a good-sized winger who can score. He’s got 17 goals and 16 assists in 57 games, but is aware of what he needs to focus on to improve.

“I have to shoot more. I have a pretty hard shot,” he said.

Steber uses his size well and goes to the net with or without the puck to create opportunities for he and his linemates. “Going with the puck to the net and also playing physical. That was my goal for this season, to play much more physical than last year, and I’m trying to do it.”

He is succeeding for the most part, but there are occasionally shifts when he dematerializes and the drive to play physical is not evident.

Although Frederik Cabana (PHI) only has nine goals on the season, he still shows flashes of offensive brilliance that rivals many of the best junior skilled forwards. He has a quick release shot, and his 23 assists are evidence of his very capable playmaking ability.

Pierre-Olivier Beaulieu, an unsigned draft pick of Detroit in 2002, is another big defenseman, and in his own zone he plays very similar to Picard. Indeed, he has a +20 rating, only one lower than Picard, but Beaulieu plays a much more physical game than his teammate while still maintaining a good level of discipline. The defensive defenseman has three goals and 17 assists on the season, but it’s in the Halifax end where his play shines.

And finally, QMJHL rookie Kevin Cormier (PHO) is in the tough guy role that he excels at with the Mooseheads. He’s got 1 goal and 4 assists, along with 220 penalty minutes on the season. At 6’2 and 243 lbs, there aren’t any players in junior hockey that Cormier would attempt to avoid.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.