With the CHL already in full swing, it’s time to start things out with a look around the Quebec League. Although we’re already a week or two into things, consider this a season preview of sorts, at least from a scouting perspective. And over the next two weeks, I’ll take an early season look at the Ontario and Western Leagues as well.
Beginning in Quebec, don’t be too surprised if this year bears little resemblance to last season. The defending champion Rimouski Oceanic have their work cut out for them. It’s bad enough that they lose Sidney Crosby (PIT). But on top of that, Dany Roussin (LA), Marc Antoine Pouliot (EDM), Mario Scalzo Jr (DAL), and Eric Neilson (LA) among others are also gone. There is definitely some talent remaining, but the rebuilding process is already underway. Hopefully, overage defenseman Patrick Coulombe will show why he’s arguably the best offensive blueliner in major junior. Scouts are going to be paying close attention to 2006 draft eligible Graham Bona and 2007 prospect David Skokan.
A couple of months ago I said that with Ted Nolan taking over the hockey operations, Moncton would be a team to look out for. As the Memorial Cup host they’re guaranteed a spot, but the Wildcats are going all out to win the cup. They should be better and more balanced offensively as Stephane Goulet (EDM), Adam Pineault (CLB), Bruce Graham (NYR), and Martins Karsums are all ready for potential career years. And the addition of Keith Yandle (PHO) on the blue line is a major acquisition making a strong defense even better. I haven’t had the chance to see rookie Matt Marquardt this year, but early indications are that he’ll fit right in. Moncton also has the room to add one more overage player, so look for another new face in the lineup. Goalie Jean Blanchard has the tools to be a legitimate No. 1 netminder, but he must respond well to the increased pressure.
Chicoutimi was a pleasant surprise last year and I think they’re capable of an even better season this time around. They’ll be one of the more dangerous offensive teams in the league, as their combination of skill and size poses real problems for the opposition. Maxime Boisclair is a pure scorer and David Desharnais and Stanislav Lascak (TB) are top playmakers with very good hands. And pivot Marek Zagrapan (BUF) has star potential. I’m looking for better things from Nicolas Blanchard (CAR) while draft eligible blueliner Mathieu Bolduc has a lot of upside. Goalie Alexandre Vincent (VAN) is supported by veteran Sylvain Michaud (NYI). All things considered, this is the best Chicoutimi team in a long time.
One of the top offseason stories in the league was Angelo Esposito’s decision to go the major junior route and play in Quebec. As far as I’m concerned, he’s every bit as good as advertised. In fact, I expect him to exceed expectations as soon as this year. The Remparts also have one of the best netminding duos in the league in Cedrick Desjardins and Maxime Joyal. It took winger Jordan Lavallee (ATL) about a year to get accustomed to the Q. Now he’s one of their best returning players. Hopefully, Joey Ryan and Andrew Andricopolous will have the same learning curve on defense. The intriguing question up front is whether or not Max Gratchev will have a breakout year.
In Lewiston, Jonathan Bernier has been handed the No. 1 job in net and I expect him to show why he’s a first round talent. With no less than six draft eligibles of note this season, scouts will be following the Maineiacs closely. They have leadership, toughness and potentially outstanding goaltending. What they may lack however is scoring punch on the second and third lines. But the opportunity is there for a number of youngsters to step up. Big winger Jakub Bundil is very raw but worth watching and 2005 first round blueliner Kevin Marshall is an underrated defenseman.
When you’re the worst team in the league, there’s nowhere to go but up. But Acadie Bathurst will legitimately be better this season. Gabriel Bouthillette (ANA) will again be a workhorse goalie and he should have a steadier, more reliable defense in front of him. I expect Mathieu Carle to elevate his game even further, while imposing Alex Lamontagne should develop with increased ice time. Up front, Mathieu Roy is a fine scorer, and I really like the acquisitions of Olivier Labelle and Petr Pohl (CLB). Rookie Mathieu Perreault is small but skilled and instinctive.
With the right linemates, Drummondville winger Guillaume Latendresse (MON) is capable of scoring 100 points this year. Center Derick Brassard is hoping to show scouts that he can play a pro-style game after racking up some impressive scoring totals last year. I think Brassard’s pro potential is a bit underrated. Import Tomas Zohorna has the chance to see quality ice time, but he may take some time to adjust to North America. Goalie Pier-Olivier Pelletier (PHO) once again needs to come up big for the Voltigeurs. I’m looking forward to seeing rookie defenseman Nicolas Sigouin, a good prospect with upside.
Shawinigan has two marquee players in Julien Ellis-Plante (VAN) and Alex Bourret (ATL). These two alone may be enough to get the Cataractes into the top half of the league. Ellis-Plante seems ready to play somewhere in the range of 60 games in net, while I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think Bourret is a star who can impact the game with a big goal or a big hit. I’d like to see more from defenseman Jean-Philippe Paquet (PIT) who may be poised for a very good year. Rookie Matthew Pistilli is an intriguing prospect with size and talent.
Unless they can find more of a scoring punch, goalie Josh Tordjman will have to carry Victoriaville. The good news is that he is capable of doing just that. He showed he can carry a heavy workload and this season will be no different. Forwards Alexandre Imbeault, Benoit Doucet and Francis Guerette-Charland should continue to develop, but they lack that reliable game-breaker up front. Defenseman Jason Legault had a tough rookie campaign a year ago, but he has the tools to rebound. This year’s top pick, Kevin Guerette-Charland lacks some size, but he has talent and smarts.
Prince Edward Island needs a lot of things to go right in order for them to climb to respectability. Slava Trukhno (EDM) must show he can carry an offense. Marc Andre Gragnani (BUF) needs to be a consistent offensive force on the blue line while stabilizing his defensive game. And goalie Ryan Mior must show that he really has what it takes to be a No. 1 goalie. Rookie defenseman Stephen Lund has the size and hockey sense to be a very solid player.
Rouyn-Noranda surprised me last year by winning the west, but I really don’t expect them to have that same type of success this season. In net, I’m hoping that J-P Levasseur (ANA) will show why I consider him to be one of the more underrated goalies in the league. He’ll be playing behind a young defense without a lot of size, but look for him to steal more than his share of games for the Huskies. Overall it looks like the club lacks some toughness and skill, while having a bit too much youth. Marc Antoine Desnoyers and Hugo Carpentier have loads of potential and will be watched closely.
After finishing last in the east, Baie Comeau comes into this season losing three of their top four scorers. But believe it or not, things aren’t all that bad. Montreal draft pick Loic Lacasse (MON) is capable of posting significantly better numbers in net. Alex Picard-Hooper is a small but talented pivot, while forward Benjamin Breault is ready to emerge as a team leader and potential go-to guy. Winger François Bouchard may surprise this year. What the team needs most is size down the middle and for their younger players to mature. They’re likely a year or so away.
Ondrej Pavelec’s (ATL) first year in North America will bear watching in Cape Breton. I’ve scouted him for the last couple of years and think that the move to major junior will only help his long-term development. Look for opponents to key on James Sheppard this year, so the breakout year that scouts are hoping for may not arrive. Veteran winger Kevin Asselin will lead the offense. The team has a solid top four on the blue line, but they simply need more talent and depth in order to challenge this season. Winger Scott Brannan has very nice upside but he’ll be brought along slowly.
Val d’Or never seemed to get untracked last year. I thought they had more talent than they showed, but the results just weren’t there. This season, they have some definite questions up front, but a solid, dependable overage goalie in Julien Walsh and good cornerstone defensemen in Luc Bourdon (VAN) and Kristopher Letang (PIT). But some of their youngsters, namely Peter-James Corsi and Dany Masse need to rise to the occasion.
For Gatineau to get to the next level, goalie David Tremblay needs to return to the form he showed in the 2003-04 season. There are a lot of new faces in key positions, so the Olympiques may be a bit slow getting out of the gate. With a year of major junior experience, I expect David Krejci (BOS) to post impressive numbers this year. I’m just not sure who will step up to finish the plays, as goal scoring will be a problem. Young blueliners Jonathan Carrier, Pierre-Luc Lessard and Brad Tesink can develop into top players, while Colin Escott is a raw winger with very good pro potential.
There’s no doubt that Halifax will drop back a bit this year, I just don’t know how far. The Mooseheads lost a ton of firepower up front and desperately need some of their younger players to step up. I still think that James Pouliot could be a fine player at forward after suffering through a disappointing year last season. Winger Fredrik Cabana (PHI) has toughness and some skill and may really develop if he can stay healthy.
Scoring may be tough to come by in St. John’s, but they’re going to be a tough, hard working team that can compete. They have a big defense willing to throw their weight around, plus they have some size on the wings as well. But outside of import pick Nicklas Bergfors (NJ), there aren’t any household names. And there’s no guarantee that Bergfors will return from New Jersey. Yes, they’re a typical expansion team, but at least they’ll be fun to watch. First rounder Jean Simon Allard is a potential first liner and a fine pro prospect.
Top prospect Alex Grant will be a special player in Saint John. The 16-year-old blueliner has skill, size and smarts, and he’ll see significant ice time from the start. Jason Churchill (SJ) should provide solid goaltending, and I especially like their crew of overagers, namely Kevin Coughlin, Jeff Caron and tough guy David Starenky.
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