The puck drops for the 2013 MasterCard Memorial Cup starting Friday evening at 6 PM CST. The host city’s Saskatoon Blades take on the Ontario Hockey League champion London Knights to kick off a tournament that features the CHL’s three top-ranked clubs (and the unranked hosts). In addition, several highly-ranked 2013 prospects plus many well-regarded NHL prospects will be taking part in this tournament.
HOW THEY GOT TO SASKATOON: QMJHL Champions. Finished the season ranked first overall in the CHL rankings. Ended the regular season with a record of 58-6-3-1, with 120 points. Only lost one game in the playoffs (in the final against the Baie-Comeau Drakkar).
STRENGTHS: The Mooseheads are offensively potent, accumulating 347 goals during the regular season.
They are led by two of the league’s top draft prospects in Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon. And the duo has performed throughout the playoffs — Drouin at a two-point-per-game pace (35 points in 17 games), with MacKinnon almost matching that pace (33 points in 17 games).
The club has a solid but non-descript blueline corps, led offensively by Konrad Abeltshauser is the offensive strength of the roster.
WEAKNESSES: The Mooseheads are hedging all their bets on 17-year-old Zachary Fucale — and so far, he’s paid off in spades. But will he be able to maintain this performance in the face of intense pressure?
The club’s level of competition has also been called into question. Are they dominant or are they just dominant in a figurative small pond?
HOW THEY GOT TO SASKATOON: OHL Champions. Finished the season ranked third overall in the CHL with a record of 50-13-2-3, good for 105 points.
STRENGTHS: Balance and depth. This is a team that rolls four lines consistently and can boast elite offensive production from three of them — with the fourth chipping in regularly. Bo Horvat has led the club in playoff goal-scoring with 16 goals in 21 games.
And while Portland has the tournament’s marquee defensive corps, London’s may be just as talented, albeit in a far less flashy manner. Draft-eligible Nikita Zadorov is the club’s biggest blueline presence, but the duo of Scott Harrington and Olli Maatta are well-rounded defenders whose focus on the little things adds up to a superlative-yet-understated performance game in and game out.
The Knights also have the luxury of possessing a legitimate 1 and 1A solution in the net with Jake Patterson and Anthony Stolarz. The players have confidence in both and the team is comfortable playing in front of both.
They can also get on a roll; the club experienced a 24-game winning streak in the middle of the year, but its most impressive roll may have been the three-game winning streak that brought them back from the brink of elimination after they fell behind three games to one against the Barrie Colts in the OHL final.
The club also has experience on its side, having reached the final game of last year’s Memorial Cup in Shawinigan.
WEAKNESSES: Youth. The Knights are led up front by their draft-eligibles. How will they fare under the bright lights when they’re expected to be the men? The team also lacks that one player that will grab a game by its throat and will the team to victory.
And you know that 1/1A situation? It may also be a negative. While Stolarz received the bulk of the playing time upon his arrival at mid-season, Patterson was forced to take over in game five of the OHL championship after the club fell behind 3-1.
HOW THEY GOT TO SASKATOON: WHL Champions. The team finished the season as the second-ranked CHL squad after ending the regular season with a 57-12-1-2 record and 117 points. The team had a relatively uneventful playoff, only losing five games over its four rounds.
STRENGTHS: You name it. Offense? 334 goals. Defense? They only allowed 169.
Ty Rattie has been on fire this post-season. He’s been the club’s offensive dynamo, averaging nearly a goal a game, with 20 in 21 games to date. He leads the team with 36 points and has already set a WHL record for post-season scoring with 50 career playoff goals.
As stacked as they are up front, the club’s strength may be on its blueline. The club’s three elite veterans – Derrick Pouliot, Troy Rutkowski, and Tyler Wotherspoon – are standouts on their own. But that trio has been overshadowed this season by the presence of presumptive first overall NHL Draft pick Seth Jones, who hasn’t looked out of place at all in the post-season, earning 15 points and posting a plus-15 rating.
Experience is also on the Winterhawks’ side as they are a team rich in playoff games played. However, the past two years have ended with losses in the WHL Championship series. This year, they got over the hump.
WEAKNESSES: Still looking. The club is solid and balanced in all areas.
HOW THEY GOT TO SASKATOON: As the host city. The team finished the regular season with a 44-22-2-4 record and 94 points.
With 280 regular-season goals, the Blades know how to light up the lamp. But that explosive offense turned into a dud in the playoffs, as the team was only able to score four goals (while allowing 15) in its inglorious four-game exit in the first round at the hands of the Medicine Hat Tigers.
STRENGTHS: If it shows up, offense. The third-best offensive team in the WHL boasts a marquee goal-scorer in Josh Nicholls, who finished the year with 47 goals. They have offensive depth up front and also on the blueline, as Darren Dietz was the league’s top goal-scoring defenseman with 24.
The team is also extremely strong between the pipes — and that’s despite playing with a huge chip on his shoulder. Andrey Makarov was unclaimed by any QMJHL squad in the Lewiston dispersal draft, so he headed west. The 19-year-old has plenty of big game experience. He stood on his head in last year’s U20 World Junior Championship, stopping 56 of 57 shots in the finals — yet Sweden still prevailed over Russia. This year, he backstopped the Russians to a bronze medal in front of their home-country fans.
WEAKNESSES: The club’s early exit from the playoffs has left the team figuratively twiddling its thumbs for the past two months. It is always hard to replicate game situations, no matter how much practice you have, and the Memorial Cup is notoriously unforgiving for slow starters.
And if the offense continues to disappear, the Blades may undergo an early vanishing act.