Now that the major junior seasons are underway, I’ve decided to start things out this year with a quick look at the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Here are some of my notes on what I’m expecting out of the Q.
The Quebec Remparts lost a lot of talent from last year’s Memorial Cup championship team. But with players like Angelo Esposito and Brent Aubin returning, they are still a club to watch closely. What Quebec needs to begin to approach last season’s level is for the support guys to step up. More will be expected from Maxime Lacroix, Kenzie Sheppard, Nicolas Robillard, and draft eligible Todd Chinova. Rookies Ruslan and Roman Bashkirov, Kelsey Tessier, and Maxime Sauve are intriguing prospects with upside. On the blueline, Marc-Edouard Vlasic is one of the top defensemen in the league, while Andrew Andricopolous and Joey Ryan will get a ton of ice time. New acquisition Loic Lacasse needs to be more consistent in net.
I really like Val d’or’s defense and depth, but I need to see more forwards contributing to the offense. The leading returning scorers are defensemen Sebastian Bisaillon and Kristopher Letang. They are one of the most dangerous blueline combinations in the league. Mathieu Roy and Brad Marchand were brought in to pace the attack, while Peter-James Corsi, Marc-Andre Cote and Julius Sinkovic will be counted on to put up strong numbers. This could be a real big year for goalie Alexandre Vincent. Even though he’s played well before, I’m looking for even more from him.
I may not be sold yet on Lewiston’s defense, but the rest of the team impresses me. Goalie Jonathan Bernier is capable of single-handedly carrying the club. And Marc Andre Cliché, Simon Courcelles and Eric Castonguay will provide very good production up front. And expect better numbers from Marc-Andre Daneau, while rookie Danick Hudon-Paquette should contribute. On the blueline, Chad Denny is a workhorse and Kevin Marshall is capable of really elevating his overall game this year. But they will need more help on the backline. Lewiston may only be a player or two away from really emerging as a top contender.
Gatineau is capable of some big things this year. Claude Giroux will emerge as a marquee player in the Q, and, along with Viatcheslav Trukhno, they form a great one-two punch. Underrated Brett Morrison has skill and finishing ability, and this could be a breakout year for the likes of Matthew Pistilli, Darryl Smith and former first rounder Colin Escott. Overage Maxime Frechette anchors the blueline while youngsters Maxime Mallette, Benoit Gervais, Brad Tesink, and Bryan Main have some upside. One or two of these guys will definitely emerge. There will be some growing pains, but the defense has a bright future. And goalie Olivier Laliberte is finally ready to assume the role of number one netminder.
There’s no question that Drummondville has talent throughout the lineup. But their success is linked heavily to the play of Derrick Brassard and Guillaume Latendresse. The shoulder injury suffered by Brassard is a huge blow both to he and the Voltigeurs. It’s still a question as to when he will get back in the lineup. And if Latendresse earns a spot in Montreal, Drummondville will lose some real firepower. The dynamic of the club changes dramatically without either of these guys. This isn’t meant to take anything away from the likes of Alexandre Demers, Frederic St-Denis or Francis Charette. But the Voltigeurs will go only as far as Brassard and Latendresse take them.
I’m looking for Baie Comeau to be a real sleeper team this year. I think Michael Dupont is capable of posting some excellent numbers in net. Their top five scorers from last year return, led by Francois Bouchard, Alex Picard-Hooper and Benjamin Breault, and they have solid depth and two-way ability on the blueline. Keep an eye on draft eligible prospects Francis Filion, Adam Leblanc-Bourque and Charles-Antoine Messier. Do not overlook the Drakkar this season.
A trio of overage forwards will be major components of the Acadie-Bathurst offense. Veterans Thomas Beauregard, Jonathan Duchesneau and Renaud Des Alliers will get a lot of ice time and be expected to provide much of the offense as the season begins. Mathieu Perreault may be poised for a big year at center, while Jordan Clendenning should reach the 30-goal plateau. The defense revolves around Mathieu Carle. Look for him to be among the league leaders in minutes played this season. But he will need more support on the blueline, and the Titan goaltending situation does concern me a bit. Look for this to be addressed at some point during the year.
A lot of the scouts I’ve been talking to so far are pretty excited about Victoriaville’s chances this year. But I’m just not yet sold on them. I’m still waiting for Jean-Christophe Blanchard to put all the pieces together in net. He has the ability to be a terrific netminder. Offensively, Alexandre Imbeault, Benoit Doucet and Toby Lafrance return, but the second and third lines are still a little unsettled. Euro import Jan Kolarik should step in and fill one of the voids. There is pretty good depth on defense, and Maxime Noreau should continue to generate offense from the blueline. But the second and third defense pairings must stabilize. The opportunity is there for some of the younger defensemen to step up and get more playing time. I’m not jumping on the Tigres bandwagon until I see some of the weaknesses corrected. They should be a better team at the end of the season than the beginning.
The time has come for Jeremy Duchesne to take charge and lead Halifax into the top half-dozen teams in the league. He has the talent and hopefully he’s gained enough experience. He needs to show it on a nightly basis. I anticipate Andrew Bodnarchuk having a big year on defense, leading a solid and very underrated group. His offensive numbers will take a big jump this season. At forward, the club will rely on Ryan Hillier, Bryce Swan and James Pouliot. It’s going to be a lot of fun watching the development of top prospect Jakub Voracek. The move to North America is an excellent one for him. Fellow draft eligible prospects Logan MacMillan, Ben MacAskill and Yuri Cheremetiev will also garner a lot of attention. I’m particularly high on MacMillan. Halifax could be a real pleasant surprise this year.
There’s little doubt that Moncton will take a step back this year. But just how far I don’t know. There will certainly be a scoring and leadership void. But that being said, don’t count out the Wildcats. 2005 first rounder Nicola Riopel has the inside track to be the number one netminder. He has loads of potential. Most of Moncton’s big time scorers have moved on, but overage blueliner Nathan Welton is a reliable catalyst, while Jerome Samson and Matt Marquardt know how to put the puck in the net. There will be some real rough spots this year, but Moncton will still be respectable.
With arguably the best goalie in the league, Cape Breton will again be solid. Ondrej Pavelec is capable of keeping the Screaming Eagles in every game. And with a fairly solid defense and good depth at forward, Cape Breton should have a pretty good year. A defensive tandem of Jean Claude Sawyer and Oskars Bartulis will be counted on at both ends of the ice, while James Sheppard, Cam Fergus, Chris Culligan, and Paul McIlveen will pace the offense. Draft eligible forwards Scott Brannon and Robert Slaney will be give the ice time to impress the scouts. Slaney however is sidelined right now with a shoulder injury.
After last year’s terrible season, it’s hard to believe that I’m going to tell you that Rimouski will be a fun team to watch this season. But the Oceanic will be much improved and they are making progress toward being a very good team. That may be another year or two in the making, but they are going in the right direction. Michael Frolik has brought his skill and scoring ability to the Quebec League this year, and he’ll be joined by 2007 NHL draft hopefuls Marc-Andre Laroche, Maxim Grachev, Maxime Tanguay, and David Skokan. Add in rookies Patrice Cormier, Philippe Cornet, Alexandre Neron, and Jordan Caron, and it’s evident that Rimouski could be a team of the future. There are still problems on defense and in net and the club needs some leaders to step forward. But like I said, they will definitely be entertaining.
Marc-Andre Gragnani will again key the Prince Edward Island offense. The highly skilled defenseman will be joined by Pierre-Luc Lessard, helping give the Rocket a very good transition game. 2007 NHL draft prospect Stephen Lund showed real nice flashes of ability last year, and it’ll be interesting to see how quickly he develops. Fellow draft hopefuls of note include Joey Haddad and Maxime Cliché. And looking ahead to the 2008 NHL draft, center Chris Doyle is a solid prospect. He’s started the season on the injury list, however, and may miss a few more weeks.
Rouyn-Noranda will have Jean-Philippe Levasseur in net, once he returns from Anaheim’s training camp. The Huskies will be a solid club thanks to Levasseur and a well-balanced offensive attack. Leading scorer Justin Munden is back as an overage, and center Hugo Carpentier and winger Yannick Riendeau should be even better this year. Marc-Antoine Desnoyers, Dylan Quaile and Pier-Luc Fortin are draft eligible defensemen who will be scouted very heavily this season. Desnoyers heads into the season as the most highly regarded of the three.
Don’t be too surprised to see St. John’s take a bit of a step back this year. Nothing too dramatic, but I don’t see a repeat of their strong debut season. Among the positives though, are underrated goalie Ilia Ejov and overagers Luke Gallant and Nicolas Bachand. The downside is that both Gallant and Bachand are starting out the year on the injured list. Draft eligible center Jean-Simon Allard will be under scrutiny to bounce back from a less than spectacular rookie season. Import forward Mario Kempe has excellent offensive skills and very good upside. He has a great chance to climb up the draft boards as the season goes on.
Chicoutimi will have a very difficult time trying to rebound from the loss of Stanislav Lascek, Maxime Boisclair, Marek Zagrapan, and Patrick Coulombe. It was hoped that David Desharnais would return as an overage, but he may land in the pros. So that leaves the injured Francis Verrault-Paul to generate the offense. Nicolas Blanchard has some playmaking ability, while rookie Joel Champagne has size and talent. There are some positives, but the Sagueneen will struggle this year.
Saint John can only get better after a very rough first season. Their defense still has a lot to learn, but they do have several future NHLers. Alex Grant is a legitimate 2007 NHL first rounder who struggled at times last year. But he has loads of talent and the tools to carry a defense. David Stich has come to North America this year and should develop quickly. And 2008 NHL draft eligible blueliner Yann Sauve is another top prospect that will see a lot of action in his rookie year.
It’s shaping up to be a long season in Shawinigan. They lost scoring and skill and their goaltending is unproven. Francis Pare and Danick Bouchard will be their top forwards while defenseman Jean-Philippe Paquet will anchor the defense. But the Cataractes are clearly in the rebuilding mode.