QMJHL 2011-12 season preview

By Kevin Forbes
Photo: Jonathan Huberdeau is expected to return to a loaded St. John team for the 2011-12 season. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

With a new season upon us, there are plenty of changes in the structure and makeup of the QMJHL for 2011-12. The Lewiston MAINEiacs are no longer in the league, with the team being shuttered and their players dispersed among the remaining 17 clubs. Meanwhile, the Montreal Junior have moved across town and were renamed the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada.

But one thing that doesn’t look like it will change is the strength of the Saint John Sea Dogs. The Sea Dogs dominated the QMJHL last season, tying a league record for wins in a season with 58. Burning through the post season to capture their first President’s Cup, they then went on to win the QMJHL‘s first Memorial Cup title since 2006. The regular season champion in the QMJHL for the past two seasons, Saint John could be a good bet to finish atop the standings for the third season in a row, but they will be challenged by the Victoriaville Tigres and the Shawinigan Cataractes, this year’s Memorial Cup host team.

Here’s a look at the 17 QMJHL clubs and what they might expect from the 2011-12 season.

TELUS West Division

Blainville-Boisbriand Armada
2010-11 season: Finished 1st in division, 2nd in league. Eliminated in second round of playoffs.

For the hockey club formerly known as the Montreal Junior, a new name, rink, and uniform are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the bevy of changes for the Armada this season. After a disappointing finish to their 2010-11 season where their veteran-heavy roster was ousted early in the QMJHL post season, the Armada are left to pick up the pieces. Gone are top talents like Louis Leblanc (MTL), Trevor Parkes (DET), Philippe Lefebvre and Louis-Marc Aubry (DET), in addition to defenders Charles Landry (TB) and Charles-Olivier Roussel (NAS) as well as star goaltender Jean-Francois Berube (LAK). In fact, their top returning scorer from last season is Xavier Ouellet, Detroit’s newly drafted blue liner, who finished eighth on the squad with 43 points. With such a young and rebuilding squad, it looks like the Armada’s first season in Blainville-Boisbriand will be a long one, but a huge wildcard will be Kirill Kabanov (NYI). Selected in the Lewiston dispersal draft, Kabanov broke out in last year’s playoffs and looked to finally be realizing his enormous potential, after an infamous start to his junior career. In Blainville-Boisbriand, Kabanov will be reunited with Jean-Francois Houle, the bench boss in Lewiston and the Armada’s new head coach.

Drummondville Voltigeurs
2010-11 season: Finished 2nd in division, 4th in league. Eliminated in second round of playoffs.

After a mass exodus of talent prior to the 2010-11 season led to many predicting a fall from grace for the Voltigeurs, the team continued their winning ways to finished 4th in the league, but ran out of gas in the playoffs. But once again, the squad is now facing questions as they enter the season. Their top two scorers in Sean Couturier and Ondrej Palat have both been drafted, by Philadelphia and Tampa Bay respectively and both are eager to start their professional career. For Couturier, as an 18-year-old, he would need to crack the Flyers NHL lineup, but 20-year-old Palat only needs to convince the Lightning that he is capable of playing minor pro hockey and worthy of an entry-level contract. Losing one or both of these star players would be a significant blow to Drummondville. New arrival Olivier Archambault (MTL) will be counted on heavily to help out offensively as Drummondville hopes some of their promising young players such as defenseman Nikolas Brouillard and goaltender Dominic Graham are reading to step up and play major roles.

Gatineau Olympiques

2010-11 season: Finished 3rd in division, 5th in league. Eliminated in President’s Cup finals.

The return of Benoit Groulx to the helm of the Gatineau Olympiques was a success with the Olympiques rebounding from a season full of injuries to make an impressive run all the way to the President’s Cup finals. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine a similar inspiring performance this year. Veterans like forward Tye McGinn (PHI) and Philip-Michael Devos as well as defenders Nicolas Deslauriers (LAK) and Hubert Labrie (DAL) and goaltender Maxime Clermont (NJ) are all moving on to the pro ranks. Leading scorer Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT) will return, as will defender Adam Janosik (TB), but much of their supporting cast are sorely inexperienced. However, the TELUS West division as a whole appears to have many teams in similar transition, which can help a team like Gatineau, especially under Groulx’s guidance. Draft eligible Taylor Burke will be given every chance to succeed once his ailing shoulder is 100% and there are high hopes for rookie Import player Tomas Hyka.

Rouyn-Noranda Huskies
2010-11 season: Finished 6th in division, 18th in league. Did not qualify for playoffs.

Missing the playoffs last season for the first time since 1997, the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies are still a long way away from being considered a contender in the league. With a nucleus of young talent forming, the Huskies are hoping their youth movement will pay off in a few years as the roster continues to grow and develop as a unit. Justin Guenette, the Huskies top pick at 4th overall in the QMJHL draft will join a solid core of young talent on the blue line with Alexandre Leclerc and newly acquired players Dillon Fournier and Simon Desmarais. Meanwhile, between the pipes, Robin Gusse should help keep things somewhat respectable. The real question with Rouyn-Noranda is who will score the goals? Top scorer Jessyko Bernard is returning, but last year’s output was only 36 points. Import selection Zven Andrighetto has led the team in pre-season scoring and could be a name to watch. A native of Switzerland, Andrighetto was passed over in this year’s draft but a strong rookie season in the QMJHL may change his fortunes.

Val-d’Or Foreurs
2010-11 season: Finished 5th in division, 14th in league. Eliminated in first round of playoffs.

After a middling 2010-11 season, the Val-d’Or Foreurs are looking to continue to make steady progress up the league standings. The young roster that they’ve been grooming has received a number of shots in the arm over the off-season with the addition of hometown boy Samuel Henley via the Lewiston Dispersal Draft, Benjamin Casavant and Michael Beaudry via trade and Vadislav Shalimov via the Import Draft. The quartet joins key young players like Jean-Francois Leblanc, Cedrick Henley (BUF), Artem Sergeev, Gabriel Beaupre (COL), and Francois Tremblay to form a solid core to carry the Foreurs through both this season and into the next. Expect modest gains for the Foreurs this season with the following year looking to be their shot at contending.

TELUS East Division

Baie-Comeau Drakkar
2010-11 season: Finished 6th in division, 17th in league. Did not qualify for playoffs.

One of the worst teams in the league in 2010-11, the Baie-Comeau Drakkar did not stand pat during the offseason as they aim to change their luck. After drafting Nathan MacKinnon first overall did not go exactly as planned, the Drakkar was able to send the rookie to Halifax for a bevy of assets. Immediate help comes in the form of Carl Gelinas, who led the Mooseheads in scoring last year and joins other new players in Tomas Filippi and Jonathan Lessard to give the Drakkar some offensive bite. An extra year of experience for last year’s leading scorers Lukas Cingel and Raphael Bussieres should also help Baie-Comeau see some improvement over last season. On the blue line, Samuel Carrier (WAS) comes over from Lewiston and the added year of seasoning for the rest of the defense should help tremendously. Between the pipes are two new faces in Antonio Mastropietro and Jimmy Appleby. Baie Comeau may have missed the playoffs for the last two seasons, but they’re unlikely to miss the postseason dance in 2012.

Chicoutimi Sagueneens

2010-11 season: Finished 5th in division, 13th in league. Eliminated in first round of playoffs.

Between forward Charles Hudon, defenseman Dominic Poulin and goaltender Christopher Gibson (LAK), the Chicoutimi Sagueneens have blue chip players who can carry their team to great heights. Building around that core, the Sagueneens are primed to take a considerable step towards being a contender in the league. Adding Etienne Brodeur from the Lewiston Dispersal Draft immediately gives the team a 50 goal scorer to beef up their offensive attack at no cost of assets. Rookie forward Jeremy Gregoire won’t have an immediate impact like Brodeur is expected to do, but he’s expected to also join the echelon of core players in Chicoutimi. Meanwhile, key deals last season have helped beef up their blue line with Guillaume Cloutier available for the full season and Gabriel Bourret joining the team. Chicoutimi finds themselves in a tough division, but they have a solid roster from top to bottom. Provided they respond to new coach Marc-Etienne Hubert, they could be a team to watch.

Quebec Remparts
2010-11 season: Finished 1st in division, 3rd in league. Eliminated in third round of playoffs.

It seems like ever since Patrick Roy stepped behind the bench in Quebec, the term "rebuild" has never even crossed the mind of the Remparts. Year after year, the Remparts puts forth a strong squad capable of competing and often beating any other team in the league. 2011-12 will be no exception. Although their top three scorers have all moved on, there’s a bevy of exciting young talent populating the Remparts forward corps. Rookie Import Mikhail Grigorenko is thought to be one of the top talents eligible for the 2012 draft and he’ll be joined by fellow Import rookie Nick Sorensen, who isn’t eligible to be drafted until 2013. The rookie wave continues with North American players with Adam Erne and Anthony Duclair also expected to have a major impact as they develop. On the defensive end of things, the team will rely on returning players like defensemen Mikael Tam and Martin Lefebvre as well as goaltender Louis Domingue (PHX). With such a plethora of rookie scoring talent up front, the Quebec Remparts are expected to be an exciting squad to watch both this season and into the future.

Rimouski Oceanic
2010-11 season: Finished 4th in division, 12th in league. Eliminated in first round of playoffs.

It was a season to forget for the Rimouski Oceanic. After a promising 2009-10 year, the Oceanic looked to be ready to take the next step forward. Unfortunately, they took a step back and now, under a new coach, they’re looking to turn their fortunes around. Alex Belzile and Alex Emond are the top returning forwards and the Oceanic would be much improved if Petr Straka (CLB) and Jakub Culek (OTT) can rebound from missteps last season. Francis Beauvillier comes over from the Lewiston Dispersal Draft and provides added depth, while Guillaume Gauthier was drafted 3rd overall in the QMJHL Entry Draft. But the real strength of Rimouski is on their blue line. Jerome Gauthier-Leduc (BUF), Gleason Fournier (DET), and Etienne Boutet provide a solid core that could also feature two additional first rounders from the 2011 Q Draft in Samuel Morin and Simon Boudreau. Between the pipes, Carl Hozjan will be aided by newly acquired Jacob Gervais-Chouinard. The Oceanic have a healthy sprinkling of talent, both for their immediate needs and the future, but the next step is up to them.

Shawinigan Cataractes
2010-11 season: Finished 4th in division, 7th in league. Eliminated in second round of playoffs.

The host of the 2012 Memorial Cup, some of the pressure is off for the Shawinigan Cataractes as they already have their ticket booked for the CHL’s championship tournament. But that isn’t to say that the team is expected to perform and be one of the QMJHL’s top squads this year. Returning players Michael Bournival (COL), Yannick Veilleux (STL), Anton Zlobin, and Maximilien Lesieur will be joined by newly acquired Michael Chaput (CLB), Pierre-Olivier Morin, and Vincent Arseneau to form a formidable forward corps. On the blue line, the team took a considerable hit when it was announced that defenseman Ryan Kavanagh was not joining the squad for the 2011-12 season. Kavanagh was widely considered to be one of the QMJHL’s top offensive blue liners and his decision to not report opens a large hole in Shawinigan’s back end. Dillon Donnelly (COL) and Jonathan Racine (FLA) return, but are not considered scoring threats. Between the pipes, over-ager Gabriel Girard is a solid option. Overall, the Cataractes have some weaknesses to address, but plenty of time to do so before the Memorial Cup next spring.

Victoriaville Tigres

2010-11 season: Finished 3rd in division, 11th in league. Eliminated in second round of playoffs.

Boasting a young roster last season, many expected that the Victoriaville Tigres would be competitive perhaps this season. However, no one told the Tigres that they were coming of age "early". Despite finishing in the middle of the pack, the Tigres pulled off the upset by offing the Acadie-Bathurst Titan in the first round playoffs before bowing out to the Sea Dogs. Now with that experience under their belt, the young horses in Victo are ready to take another step up in the QMJHL standings. The team’s heart-and-soul Phillip Danault (CHI) leads the attack up front, along with capable scorers in Brandon Hynes and Yanni Gourde. They’re joined by newly acquired forwards in Stefan Fournier and Philippe Halley. The blue line is serviceable, led by Pierre-Luc Pelletier and Troy Vance (DAL), and bolstered by newly acquired Samuel Finn and Import rookie Petr Sidlik, while big Czech net minder David Honzik (VAN) is more than capable between the pipes. The Tigres feature plenty of talent and will be a team to watch in 2011-12.

Atlantic Division

Acadie-Bathurst Titan
2010-11 season: Finished 2nd in division, 6th in league. Eliminated in first round of playoffs.

The 2010-11 season seemed like a mix of poor timing and bad luck for the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. With a large number of top players approaching the end of their junior careers, the decision was made to try to take the next step as league contenders. Unfortunately, the Titan found themselves in the same division as the Saint John powerhouse and then fell to a pugnacious Victoriaville Tigres squad in the first round of the playoffs. Rather than shrink away and lick their wounds, Bathurst had an active off-season to quickly reload their roster. Although top scorer Gabriel Levesque has moved on, returning players Sebastian Trudeau and Zach O’Brien will get help up front by newly acquired Mirko Hoefflin (CHI) and Matthew Bissonette, as well as a full season from Marc-Olivier Mimar. On the blue line, full seasons from Jeremie Blain (EDM) and Garrett Clarke could lead to some major improvements. Blain struggled with injury last season, while Clarke was acquired mid-season after bouncing around the league. Last season’s backup Robert Steeves put up strong numbers behind Olivier Roy (EDM) and will be given the starting role this year.

Cape Breton Screaming Eagles
2010-11 season: Finished 6th in division, 16th in league. Eliminated in first round of playoffs.

The final team to qualify for the playoffs last season, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles could have another long season this year. Their top two scorers from last season in Logan Shaw (FLA) and Cory MacIntosh are returning, but the duo only tallied 46 points each last year. Top defenseman Morgan Ellis (MTL) also returns, but 18-year-old goaltender Alexandre Verroneau is inexperienced. However there are some signs of hope. For one, the Eagles look to be going towards a younger roster, which should bode well for the future. Furthermore, some key acquisitions of veteran players, notably forwards David Rose and Jonathan Brunelle as well as defenseman Sebastian Payette, along with a full season from Import player Denis Kindl should help the immediate concerns in Cape Breton. With the team cleaning house and bringing in a new general manager and head coach over the off-season, the Screaming Eagles are in transition.

Halifax Mooseheads

2010-11 season: Finished 5th in division, 15th in league. Eliminated in first round of playoffs.

It has been three long and difficult years for Moosehead fans in Halifax after missing the playoffs two years in a row and then narrowly eking into the playoffs last season. But after a busy offseason, the fortunes of the Mooseheads look to soon be changing. The most notable move was the addition of well-heralded rookie Nathan MacKinnon. MacKinnon immediately becomes the focal point of Halifax’s bevy of talented young forwards, included 2012 draft eligible Martin Frk. Newly acquired over-ager Alexandre Grenier (VAN) is also expected to have an immediate offensive impact, even though he has less than 40 games experience in the QMJHL. In addition to up front, there are also a number of returning players on the blue line and the hope is that the Mooseheads’ young roster will finally begin to bear fruit this season.

Moncton Wildcats
2010-11 season: Finished 3rd in division, 9th in league. Eliminated in first round of playoffs.

After winning the league championship in 2010, most would have thought that the Moncton Wildcats would be forced to rebuild and thus spend a season or two in the league’s basement. But the secret to their success in 2010 is also the secret to their resilience now. A well-coached squad who plays a defensive style, Danny Flynn’s Wildcats are competitive and have the discipline to keep every close. In Alex and Allain Saulnier, Moncton has a healthy amount of offensive punch up front, which will be bolstered further if Marek Hrivik returns as an over-age player. Newly acquired forward Patrick Delisle-Houde will also figure into the scoring attack. Much is expected from rookie Brandon Shea, although the Wildcats have the depth to bring him along slowly. Their blue line is still led by Brandon Gormley (PHX), one of the top defensemen in the league and Moncton will be turning to first year Import Roman Will to fill a key role between the pipes. Mixing plenty of talent with a tight system, the Moncton Wildcats can never be counted out.

P.E.I. Rocket
2010-11 season: Finished 4th in division, 10th in league. Eliminated in first round of playoffs.

Another squad entering the season with a new coach behind the bench, Gordie Dwyer takes the helm of the PEI Rocket as they look to rebuild and start anew. Although leading scorer Ben Duffy is scheduled to return, the next four forwards listed in last year’s scoring statistics have all moved on. Newly acquired forward Pierre-Antoine Dion will be counted on to help make up a significant part of the difference, and a full season from Alex Noel and Olivier Croteau should help. The blue line is a bit more positive with returning players in Matthew Hobbs, Jimmy Oligny and Dylan Capstick being bolstered by Import rookie Tomas Pavelka. Between the pipes, Maxime Lagace will be given the reins on a full time basis after providing some solid play as a rookie backup last season. As PEI builds towards the future, their top two picks from 2011 in defenseman Ryan Graves and forward Yan Pavel Laplante may both crack the line-up.

Saint John Sea Dogs
2010-11 season: 1st in division, 1st in league. Won President’s Cup as QMJHL champion. Won Memorial Cup as CHL champion

It is hard to find fault in the 2010-11 season for the Saint John Sea Dogs. They had a record-setting year as they blazed through both the QMJHL and the top teams in the CHL to capture the Memorial Cup. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that a large contingent of their top stars are due to return. Top scorer Jonathan Huberdeau (FLA) is a safe bet to challenge for the QMJHL scoring lead provided he doesn’t jump directly into the lineup with the Florida Panthers. Meanwhile his usual partner in crime, Zack Phillips (MIN) should also be making the lives of opposing net minders miserable and he’ll be joined by Tomas Jurco (DET) and Stanislav Galiev (WAS). On the blue line, Simon Despres (PIT) and Eric Gelinas (NJ) have both moved on to the pro ranks, but Nathan Beaulieu (MTL) and Kevin Gagne are more than capable to lead the defensive corps. Finally, Columbus prospect Mathieu Corbeil-Theriault will see full time duty between the pipes, with Jacob De Serres graduating. Saint John still boasts plenty of talent and whether they can pick up where they left off in their winning ways will be one of the main questions entering into the 2011-12 QMJHL season.