“Q”uest for gold

By Eric Forest

After a heartbreaking loss to the United States in the Gold Medal game of the 2004 World Junior Hockey Championship, Team Canada will once again look to end a streak that has shamed every province in the Land of the North. The Canadians haven’t won a gold medal since 1997, when Marc Denis stood on his head in front of 4,000 people in Geneva for a 2-0 shutout win. That day, Team Canada had won six championships in a row. Who would have thought that day would be the last?

Canada has been waiting for seven years, now.

In that span of time, the QMJHL produced only 24 Team Canada players, including six goaltenders and three players- Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Mike Ribeiro and Mathieu Biron- already with NHL experience who were playing in the QMJHL. People arguing that La Belle Province can’t produce good defenseman would be salivating at the fact that only three defensemen- Joe Rullier, Alexandre Rouleau and Biron- made Canada’s WJC team since 1997. However, each of these teams saw a goaltender coming from Gilles Courteau’s league. Unfortunately, 2005 could be the year where that streak ends.

Disaster is coming

No one in Quebec owns a real legitimate chance of taking a goaltending spot in this year’s tournament. For the first time since the invention of sliced bread, no French Canadian was invited to Canada’s summer camp. Looking at his name, you might think Rejean Beauchemin would be a likely QMJHL candidate, but the Prince Albert Raiders netminder was born in Winnipeg. Some fanatics could tell you that the likes of Roberto Luongo, Maxime Ouellet or even Marc-André Fleury weren’t able to lead Team Canada to a championship. But for a league whose image depends greatly on its goaltenders, this year could be a disaster.

Chicago’s Corey Crawford, the best goaltender in the "Q" as of now, won’t have the chance to participate in the tournament since he’s already 20 years of age. He has 15 wins and only three losses in 20 games. He leads the league with a 2.06 goal-against average and five shutouts. He should once again win every statistical category at the end of the season and could bring his Moncton Wildcats to the Memorial Cup.

Philadelphia’s David Tremblay and Tampa Bay’s Jonathan Boutin were both invited to show their skills against the Russian team in the ADT games. Both lost hard-fought games, giving up three goals in the always-popular shootouts. They were overshadowed by the brilliant performance of Minnesota Wild prospect Andrei Khudobin, who made plenty of miraculous saves against a team missing its two best players (Sidney Crosby and Alexandre Picard). Tremblay wasn’t sharp enough and probably missed his chance of getting an invitation when he allowed some poor five-hole goals. His current "Q" statistics aren’t impressive at all, as he sports only a 10-9 record in 24 games and a goals-against average of 2.96. Boutin, who started the year strongly with two "Defensive Player of the Week" honors, is having a better year with PEI and could challenge for a late roster invite. Missing the cut are Julien Ellis-Plante, Martin Houle and Jason Churchill.

Defensemen in transition

The last time a QMJHL defenseman was selected for Canada’s junior squad was in 2003 when the Val d’Or Foreurs’ Alexandre Rouleau showed enough hockey sense in drills to be a part of an international team. He’s now playing with the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers. This year should continue the trend of seeing no Quebec defenseman on the Team Canada roster. The leading scorer is Chicoutimi’s Nicholas Marcotte, who has registered 31 points in 25 games. He’s another 20-year-old player leading this category. It’s not to say that Quebec produces awful defenders, but has more to do with the fact that both the OHL and the WHL produce more well-rounded defensemen who are molded to the style of Team Canada and the NHL.

Patrick Coulombe from the Rimouski Oceanic and Philadelphia Flyers prospect Alexandre Picard are two defensemen that could get some attention from Canadians scouts. They were both invited this summer to perform in front of them. Coulombe is second in scoring among defensemen with 29 points. He has great vision and can make some deadly passes, especially with teammates like Sydney Crosby, Marc-Antoine Pouliot and Dany Roussin. He’s on the small side of the game at 5-9 and 163-pounds, which could prevent him from receiving an invitation. Picard has been a steady defenseman throughout his QMJHL career. He’s not known for anything in particular other than being very adequate in every aspect of the game. His great size will help him compete with all the other hockey mammoths from the land west of the province of Quebec. He’s the "Q’s" best opportunity at getting a roster spot on defense. However, with all the returnees and the addition of NHL-tested Brent Burns, QMJHL fans shouldn’t hold their breath.

Next year should see the emergence of 2005 top prospect Luc Bourdon, who’s playing well right now with Val d’Or. He didn’t show any weakness against Team Russia and will get a lot of attention as the year goes on. The 6-2, 185-pound Foreur has ten points in 26 games on a poor team. Also missing the cut are New York Rangers’ prospect Jonathan Paiement, and Nathan Saunders from the Anaheim Mighty Ducks’ depth chart.

Crosby and all the others

At least the QMJHL can pride itself on having in their backyard the biggest name in junior hockey. No need to introduce him, obviously. Unfortunately for Canadian fans, Sidney Crosby didn’t play in the ADT games, as he is recovering from a minor injury. The young star and Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Stephen Dixon are probably the players having the best chances of returning with Canada’s WJC squad. Crosby’s already a lock if he can stay away from injuries. Last year, he registered two goals and three assists at 16, while teammate Dixon captured just an assist in the tournament.

Here are some other forwards that could see their name in future discussions, even if Brent Sutter already seems to have set his mind on who will be a part of the roster.

Dany Roussin – Rimouski Oceanic (Florida Panthers)

Roussin is currently tied for second place in QMJHL scoring with Stanislav Lascek. He became the first 20-goal-scorer of the season, shooting the puck past Martin Houle on November 20th. Drafted in the 7th round of the 2003 NHL Draft, Roussin has always been a scoring threat on the ice, with or without Crosby at his side. He already has scored eight power play goals in 30 games. His junior success earned him an invitation to Team Canada’s Summer Camp. Up against players he only had heard about, he didn’t knew how the experience would be.

"I think it went well", said Roussin to Hockey’s Future following the QMJHL’s loss to Team Russia in Montreal. "But the level of play down there was strong with all these guys coming from the OHL and WHL. I didn’t play my best hockey but I could manage to keep up with these players."

The 6’2 winger knows that his chances are slim to make the WJC roster. He says his priorities instead are leading Rimouski deep into the playoffs, possibly for a chance to compete for the Memorial Cup in London, ON.

"It will be a bonus to see me at development camp and I will be very happy", said Roussin. He will be ready to display his offensive flair, but he understands that a lot of players are also able to play that role, which is why he knows making the squad will be tough. The Oceanic management would be happy to keep Roussin on the ice with the departure of Crosby for Team Canada, while at the other end, the Florida Panthers would appreciate his presence on a deep WJC roster looking for gold.

Alexandre Picard – Lewiston MAINEiacs (Columbus Blue Jackets)

After a slow start that scared some Blue Jackets fans, Picard bounced back and played to his potential with his American team. He got an incredible night on October 22nd when he managed to score fours goals – three on the power play – and one assist on seven shots against Rimouski. Unfortunately, the MAINEiacs are having some difficulty winning games in one of the CHL’s strongest divisions, which is composed of Quebec, Rimouski and Chicoutimi. He’s fourth in goal scoring with 17 goals in 33 games. Team Canada will appreciate the fact that not only has he registered eight power play goals like Roussin, but he’s also leading in shorthanded goals with three. Picard can play in every situation and isn’t lacking the defensive awareness missing from a lot of hockey players. With 33 points in 25 points, Alexandre is on par to beat his 80 points from last year. He’s another "Q" player invited this summer to perform in front of Team Canada scouts. He was unable to play in the ADT games and was replaced by Edmonton prospect Jean-Francois Jacques.

Steve Bernier – Moncton Wildcats (San Jose Sharks)

Bernier is already playing his fourth year in the "Q". Just like every other Canadian hoping to crack the junior roster, Bernier knows full well that through the next few weeks, he’ll have to give everything he has on the ice, whether he’s watched by a scout or not. Bernier could be a great element on the fourth line. He can play in front of the net, dig the puck in both corners and hit everything in sight while shooting repetitively on his opponent’s net. He had the opportunity to show his skills this summer when he skated with his teammates in Alberta.

"Oh yeah, that was fun", a smiling Bernier told HF writer Matt MacInnis after a recent game. "I’ve been there…this was my second year this summer. The first summer I went there it was tough but I think the experience was good. I went there really and I think I had a pretty good camp. But like everyone knows this year there’s going to be a pretty good team, Canada is going to have a good team, so that’s going to be tough to make the team."

Steve Bernier was often criticized in the past for his health. But things have changed and Moncton’s captain has been a dominant force on the ice. He participated in both ADT games and finished off his weekend with an assist and 14 shots on goal. He was named the second star in Game 1. He’s leading his powerful Wildcats in scoring with 16 goals and 14 assists in 28 games. The 2003 first rounder is also first in game-winning goals with five.

Marc-Antoine Pouliot – Rimouski Oceanic (Edmonton Oilers)

If Marc-Antoine Pouliot grabs a roster spot with Team Canada, he can thank himself after his performance in the second ADT game in Montreal. The young Quebec City skater played brilliantly in front of 10,000 people against Team Russia. He was named the second star of the game after scoring a goal against Andrei Khudobin. He also had three shots and won 16 face-offs in 20 tries. Not only did he play great with the puck, he also put some nice checks on his opponents. This is a big relief for a player known for injury problems. Marc-Antoine was invited to the WJC Summer Camp, but couldn’t play, nursing a surgery as reported by Simon Richard and Guy Flaming in previous articles.

Pouliot talked with HF writer Eric Forest after leaving the game’s press conference where he was named the "Q" best player on the ice.

"I think I performed well today", said Pouliot. "Like you said, I missed the summer camp and I couldn’t show off my skills. I gave everything I had tonight; I tried to point out my abilities. I’m not in control of what will happen but I hope it will be a pleasant result."

He’s currently fifth in league scoring with 37 points, while he is third in goals with 18. Pouliot has no problem shooting the puck, as he is first in the QMJHL with 164 shots. He also had a long sequence of 12 games where he had at least one point per night, from October 12th to November 6th, where he registered 11 goals and 9 assists. The Oceanic sniper has developed a better defensive gave over the months and can now be placed in every possible situation. That’s a positive he thinks he possesses if Team Canada decides to take him.

"I can play any role they give me" stated Pouliot. "If they want me for some offense I’ll do that. If they want me for a defensive role, I’ll do it as well. It’s certain that there are a lot of veterans coming back so I obviously won’t be on the top two lines, I’d be more as a fourth liner who’ll bring his defensive game and take some important face-offs."

Asked why the QMJHL was unable to put more players on the junior national team, Pouliot took a neutral stand. "We have no control on that…some years are good, others are not.”

Alex Bourret – Lewiston MAINEiacs (Eligible 2005)

One of the most impressive players in the QMJHL this year, Alex Bourret, could make a big splash and get an invitation to the development camp. He may be small at 5"10, but his frame is so strong that players are having a hard time knocking him off of the puck. Bourret also played in the ADT games and got a goal in the first game in Quebec City. He currently is leading the MAINEiacs in scoring with 41 points, good for a fourth place in the QMJHL scoring race. He’s third in assists with 25. Six of those helpers came in the same game where he and Picard had some fun against Rimouski, winning 10-2. Bourret is also first in the league in the plus/minus category with +25 rating. He has gotten the attention of NHL scouts, with his draft status improving as the season progresses.

Missing the cut : Guillaume Latendresse, Jean-Francois Jacques and Marc-André Bernier.

Hockey’s Future finally asked Marc-Antoine Pouliot what chemistry Team Canada needs to win the gold medal.

"You need every style to make it succeed" said Pouliot. "Canada isn’t short on talented players. You need offensive players who are talented, skate well, are able to make some good hits, but also defensive specialists who can win important face-offs and every small details that happen in a hockey game."

Matt MacInnis contributed to this article.