QMJHL East Division preview

By Phil Laugher

As the 2006-07 QMJHL regular season begins, there will likely be some wholesale changes in regards to the final standings at the end of this season as compared to last, as is traditional in the up-and-down world of junior hockey. Last year’s Presidents Cup champions, the Moncton Wildcats, are returning a vastly inferior, and largely inexperienced squad this year as compared to the team that participated in last year’s Memorial Cup when Moncton was the host, and will likely be near the bottom of the Eastern Division at season’s end.

Meanwhile, teams such as the Lewiston MAINEiacs and Cape Breton Screaming Eagles are returning much of last year’s squad, and with perhaps two of the top goaltenders in the league at their respective helms, they will challenge for the top spot. Factor in a top-heavy Bathurst Titan offense, and rapidly building Halifax Mooseheads and P.E.I. Rocket squads, as well as more experienced expansion squads Saint John and St. John’s, and the Eastern Division should be highly competitive and hard fought.

Bathurst Titan
Last season’s record: 43-19-3-5, 94 points, 2nd in Eastern Division

Bathurst returns one of the more potent offensive units in the league this season, with two lines that can readily fill the net. There is also plenty of experience up front, as all three overage players for the Titan are forwards. Their weakness will not be in putting points on the board this season, it will be keeping them off the board, as gone from last season’s squad are the effective goaltending tandem of Anaheim draft pick Gabriel Bouthillette and 20-year-old Maxime Joyal. Current starter, 18-year-old Maxim Gougeon, only has seven games of experience in the league, and a smooth transition to the starting role will be essential in their success.

Players to watch:

Mathieu Perreault, F
Drafted by the Washington Capitals in the 6th round, 2006

Perreault will be at the forefront of the Titan offense this season, in the hopes of proving that his second overall selection in the 2005 QMJHL Midget Draft was not a misguided plan for the Titan’s scouting department. The slick, shifty forward had an excellent start to the campaign last year, and finished strong, compiling 52 points in 64 games. His creativity and ability to dispense the puck will be counted on heavily this season, and, given his desire to impress upon Washington that his size will not be an issue, the diminutive forward will continue to be involved in the more physical side of the game.

Mathieu Carle, D
Drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2nd round, 2006

Back for his fourth year as the defensive rock for the Titan, Carle will look to rebound from an up and down third season last year, when he occasionally ran into consistency and discipline issues, in spite of his excellent 69-point total. One of only three returning defensemen on the squad, Carle’s leadership and physicality – along with fellow 19-year-old Mathieu Labrie – will be essential in helping bring along their young defense corp, and help their inexperienced goaltending tandem.

Martin Bartos, F
Undrafted in 2006

Bartos was acquired from the Saint John Sea Dogs just prior to the QMJHL Midget Draft, acquired for a third round pick and Joyal. Bartos was one of the leading figures on the Sea Dogs roster last season, until an injury prior to the CHL Top Prospects Game put an end to his season. This injury, coupled with an extended slump prior to his injury, played an integral role in preventing the highly-touted forward from getting drafted in Vancouver back in June. Now with a fresh start, fully healed, loaded with skill and with something to prove, Bartos will likely be a key offensive contributor for the Titan.

Cape Breton Screaming Eagles
Last season’s record: 40-23-3-4, 87 points, 3rd in Eastern Division

Cape Breton returns a player who is arguably the best netminder in the QMJHL in Atlanta prospect Ondrej Pavelec, and will solidify a defensive unit that lost a few important players from last year’s. They did make one key move, picking up Philadelphia draft pick Oskars Bartulis from the President’s Cup-winning Moncton Wildcats, and the two-way Latvian brings experience, skill, and a winning spirit to the table. Up front, five of their top seven forwards from last season’s squad. Headlining a hard-working group is Minnesota first-round draft pick James Sheppard. Solid in all positions, Cape Breton should be a strong, hard-working if unspectacular squad this season, and may challenge for the division crown.

Players to watch:

Ondrej Pavelec, G
Drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2nd round, 2005

Pavelec was a dominant figure between the pipes last season for the Screaming Eagles and kept his team in many games that they had no right still having a chance to win. With an improved defensive corp, chances are Pavelec will not have to be as spectacular as he had to be last season, and will likely see much less rubber coming his way. A player who thrives on plenty of action, it will be important that Pavelec can keep his focus. His stellar 2.51 goals against average was among the best in the league last season, and if he can put together similar numbers this year, Cape Breton will undoubtedly improve their standing from last year.

Jean-Claude Sawyer, D
Drafted by the Ottawa Senators in the 5th round, 2004

Returning for his fifth season on the island, Sawyer, who has improved steadily in every season, will be counted on to lead the defensive corp and will once again be an offensive threat from the blue line. This is no new task for Sawyer, whose 53 points from the point last season nearly doubled his next closest defensive teammate. The addition of Bartulis will help take some of the workload from his shoulders, and will allow him to continue to hone his defensive game.

James Sheppard, F
Drafted by the Minnesota Wild in the 1st round, 2006

The unquestioned offensive leader of the Screaming Eagles squad, Sheppard will once again play a leading role with the Eagles squad. This time, it is his offense, as gone from last season is banging sniper Kevin Asselin, while the year prior, the Eagles were Pittsburgh prospect Stephen Dixon’s offense. Likely warranting a call to this year’s Canadian World Junior squad, the power forward will once again flirt with 100 points while providing physical play, offensive creativity, and a willingness to go the extra mile to generate offense.

Halifax Mooseheads
Last season’s record: 35-33-1-1, 72 points, 5th in Eastern Division

There is a noticeable void up front for the Mooseheads this season, as four of their top five scorers from last season, including Rane Carnegie, Florida camp invitee David Brine, Halifax is still returning much of their depth from up front, but will rely upon improvements from all of their forwards to fill in from the big losses up front. Carnegie’s and Brine’s linemate, New York Rangers prospect Ryan Hillier will be counted on heavily to fill the creative void on the top line. Defensively, Halifax returns seven players from last year’s squad, and there will undoubtedly be a veteran or two on the outside looking in come mid-season. In goal, Philadelphia draft pick Jeremy Duchesne is the unquestioned No. 1 goaltender – at least for the time being. His services could command quite a return for the retooling Mooseheads at the trade deadline this winter.

Players to watch:

Bryce Swan, F
Drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2nd round, 2006

Last season was largely a season to forget for Swan, who suffered through a series of fluke injuries that limited him to only 34 games – many of which he was not at 100 percent. He still managed to pick up 25 points, playing a physical style of play, creating turnovers. Anaheim took a chance on him early in last year’s draft, though he can be a big reward type of player. Versatile, with loads of determination and a developing power forward mentality, an injury-free season will be integral for Swan’s development. Receiving top-line ice, he could have a big year if his injury issues are a thing of the past.

Jakub Voracek, F
Draft Eligible in 2007

The talented Czech forward is highly-touted as a potential top-five draft pick for next year’s NHL Entry Draft, and has made a relatively seamless transition to the North American game in his relatively short stay. Boasting amazing hands and offensive improvisation, good size, smooth skating ability, and excellent drive to the net, Voracek is capable of being a game-breaker. Playing alongside a fellow 2007-eligible in forward Logan MacMillan — who in his own right has drawn comparisons to Calgary forward Alex Tanguay at this age — gives Voracek another talented linemate to display his offensive instincts with. These two should be a creative treat to watch in the coming season.

Andrew Bodnarchuk, D
Drafted by the Boston Bruins in the 5th round, 2006

Bodnarchuk returns as the power-play quarterback heir apparent to long-time blueliner and Florida camp invite Franklin MacDonald. Though he ran into discipline issues in his first season in the QMJHL last year, Bodnarchuk still was entrusted with plenty of ice time as a rookie, and developed as the season progressed. With excellent skating ability, good offensive instincts, and developing defensive responsibility, Bodnarchuk will be an important figure on the top defensive pairing for Halifax. With five points in his first two games, Bodnarchuk is well on his way to trumping his 23-point rookie campaign.

Lewiston MAINEiacs
Last season’s record: 36-23-3-8, 83 points, 4th in Eastern Division

Lewiston is returning much of their offense from last season – with only impact forward not coming back this year being Montreal draft pick Mathieu Aubin – and should have little trouble putting points on the board. Their two anchors on the point from last season in Jonathan Paiement and Brandon Roach, are gone, and hulking Atlanta prospect Chad Denny seizes the mantle as the leader on the blue line. Goaltending will not be a concern, as Los Angeles first-rounder Jonathan Bernier returns for his second season as starter. He was to be backed up once again by Travis Fullerton, however Fullerton was let go after off-ice problems emerged.

Players to watch:

Marc-Andre Cliche, F
Drafted by the New York Rangers in the 2nd round, 2005

Cliche returns to the MAINEiacs as likely their most talented offensive player. He put together a strong 82-point campaign playing on the top line last season, after finally making it through a season injury-free, and he also took the bulk of the important face-offs for the squad. A physical leader with soft hands and an ability to put the puck in the net, Cliche may warrant a long look among Team Canada scouts this season.

Jonathan Bernier, G
Drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the 1st round, 2006

Bernier returns as the starting goaltender for the second straight season, and will likely see even more games, with inexperienced backups playing behind him this year. Calm and cool under pressure, and with an ability to elevate his game given the importance of the game, Bernier’s continued success will be important in Lewiston’s playoff chances this season. Given his extensive international experience even at the young age of 18, he could also be given a look for this year’s World Junior squad.

Chad Denny, D
Drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2nd round, 2005

Denny takes the role of top defenseman from departing former Rangers draft pick Paiement, and will bring loads of physicality and a cannonading shot from the point to the table. A big player who loves to hit, Denny is deceptively mobile despite his large frame, and is rarely beaten one-on-one. He picked up 42 points with the MAINEiacs last season, and given first unit power play time on an offense-laden squad this season, who should easily eclipse that mark, while likely nearing 200 penalty minutes.

Moncton Wildcats
Last season’s record: 52-15-0-3, 107 points, 1st in Eastern Division

Moncton won the President’s Cup last season, defeating the eventual Memorial Cup champions, the Quebec Remparts, in the league final, however, if you were to look at this year’s roster and compare it to last year’s, one would think that the glory days were long since past. Moncton returned only 12 players from last year’s training camp, and of those, six were 20-year-old players, so three of those would be cut before the season began in earnest. At any given point, Moncton will be dressing 11 rookies in their line-up, so there are plenty of holes everywhere. The play of the few veteran returnees will be highly important in whether or not Moncton makes the playoffs.

Players to watch:

Matt Marquardt, F
Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 7th round, 2006

Marquardt started the last season playing on the fourth line, and very slowly progressed his way through the depth chart, until he began seeing regular shifts in the playoffs and Memorial Cup, generating offensive chances by using his big size advantage to open up space. His 16 goals last season are second among returning players, and he will be a fixture on the top two lines for the Wildcats. Whether he is ready for such an offensive load this early in his career is unclear, as he is still a bit of a project. He has gotten off to a strong start to the season, and will likely put up in the neighborhood of 50 points this year.

Andrew MacDonald, D
Drafted by the New York Islanders in the 6th round, 2006

MacDonald was a key contributor from the Wildcats blue line last season, which was surprising on such a deep team, as he was a 19-year-old rookie in the league. He was able to parlay his 46-point rookie campaign into a draft selection by way of the New York Islanders in the sixth round of last summer’s draft. With the departures of Keith Yandle, Oskars Bartulis, and likely, Vancouver prospect Luc Bourdon, MacDonald will be a top-pairing defenseman and power play threat on the young Wildcats squad.

Nicola Riopel, G
Draft eligible in 2007

Riopel was a first round selection of the Wildcats in the 2005 QMJHL Midget Draft, and was an emergency call-up for a short period this season. It was expected that the 17-year-old would back up returning second-string netminder Jhase Sniderman this year, however, Riopel performed admirably over training camp, and warranted a start in the season debut. In that game, Riopel made headlines by making 50 saves in a 2-0 shutout victory over the Bathurst Titan. If he continues to hold the No. 1 goaltender job with Moncton, his draft rating should rise considerably over the course of the season.

P.E.I. Rocket
Last season’s record: 25-38-4-3, 57 points, 7th in Eastern Division

P.E.I. will look to improve on their poor record from last season, in which they finished behind the expansion St. John’s Fog Devils in the standings. They strengthened what was an obvious weakness in the offseason, by picking up immensely-talented Ottawa Senators draft pick Pierre-Luc Lessard from Gatineau in a deal that sent game-breaking Edmonton forward Slava Trukhno to the Olympiques. Alongside stalwart Marc-Andre Gragnani and highly-touted 2007 eligible Stephen Lund, the defensive unit for the Rocket is strong in front of veteran netminder Ryan Mior. Up front, the Rocket have two new European imports to complement veterans David Laliberte and Guillaume Doucet in what is an improved team. They will shoot for the mid-pack of the standings, and should be capable of defeating anyone at any given time.

Players to watch:

Marc-Andre Gragnani, D
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 3rd round, 2005

Gragnani returns for his fourth season with the Rocket, and is unquestionably their leader on the point. This should be no surprise, as it is a role in which he has flourished since the start of his second season. One of the best two-way defensemen in the league, Gragnani picked up 71 points, logging loads of minutes on the poor 2005-06 Rocket squad. With a better, more experienced supporting cast, Gragnani will not have to carry such a heavy workload, and should be even more potent.

David Laliberte, F
Drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 4th round, 2004

Laliberte returned to the Rocket line-up early in 2006 after having missed nearly the entire 2005 calendar year with a series of injuries. Laliberte bounced back and put together a modest 23 points while still getting into game shape. Now, back and healthy, and ready to contribute, Laliberte will be counted on to fill in for the offensive void created with the departure of Trukhno. The addition of Guillaume Doucet from Rouyn-Noranda gives the talented finisher a solid playmaker to play alongside of.

Stephen Lund, D
Draft eligible in 2007

Lund was selected in the first round of the 2005 QMJHL Midget draft, and cracked the Rocket lineup at the start of the season, seeing largely third-pairing duty through the duration of the season. Now, a year older, with a year’s more experience, and with his draft year coming up, he will be looking to play a bigger role with the Rocket. A great physical presence with good defensive responsibility, Lund will look to make himself look more attractive to scouts by working on his relatively mediocre offensive game. Playing alongside a Gragnani or a Lessard would go a long way to improving that aspect of Lund’s game.

Saint John Sea Dogs
Last season’s record: 15-47-2-6, 38 points, 8th in Eastern Division

Though they looked to have the better of the two expansion rosters, with veteran goaltender and San Jose draft pick Jason Churchill between the pipes, the Sea Dogs missed the playoffs in their first season. This garnered them the chance to get their second straight first overall draft pick, which they used on yet another defenseman, picking highly-touted 2008 eligible Yann Sauve. Alongside last year’s first overall selection Alex Grant, the Sea Dogs have undoubtedly the best young defensive tandem in the league, which will burgeon into a pair of rocks on the point for several years to come. They replaced Churchill with another veteran netminder in Maxime Joyal, and with a young offense that is coming around, they should challenge for a playoff spot this season.

Players to watch:

Alex Grant, D
Draft eligible in 2007

Grant was the first selection in the history of the Sea Dogs, and was also first overall in the 2005 QMJHL Midget Draft, and was an important part of the Sea Dogs blue line, even at 16. Seeing plenty of ice time, Grant got acclimated to the increased pace of the QMJHL game, and picked up 13 points along the way, though his plus/minus rating was fairly ugly. Now, a year older, with the draft forthcoming, and an improved cast alongside him, Grant, a positionally sound blueliner with nice offensive upside, will look to build on his modest first steps in the league.

Felix Schutz, F
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 4th round, 2006

Schutz led the Sea Dogs in scoring in their first season in the league, picking up 52 points (21 of which were goals). This strong first campaign led to the German being selected by the Buffalo Sabres in the fourth round of last summer’s draft. With a year under his belt already, he returns to the Sea Dogs for his sophomore campaign, and will look to improve on his modest first-year totals. Unfortunately, the Sea Dogs did not do a very good job in addressing offensive issues, and Schutz may be one of the few threats up front again this season.

David Stich, D
Draft eligible in 2007

Stich was selected by the Sea Dogs in the 2006 Import Draft to complement Schutz as the second European. Having spent the past several seasons developing in the lower levels of the HC Plzen organization in the Czech Republic, the physical defenseman is now plying his trade on this side of the Atlantic, in preparation for his draft year. Having already played in the World Under-18 tournament for the Czechs, Stich will likely warrant a look for their World Junior squad, and will bring stability and mobility to the blue line, alongside Grant and Sauve.

St. John’s Fog Devils
Last season’s record: 30-34-5-1, 66 points, 6th in Eastern Division

The Fog Devils impressed in their first campaign, making the playoffs with relative ease, and placing only six points behind the 2005 QMJHL finalist Halifax Mooseheads. Doing so largely on the back of a high work ethic and hard-nosed style of play, the Fog Devils will likely go back to the well with a similar style this season. Their year got off to a sour note, when veteran forward and likely captain Nicolas Bachand was injured in an offseason car accident that will likely keep him out for a few months. Coupled with plenty of question marks in key positions, including in nets, the Fog Devils could be in for a long sophomore season.

Players to watch:

Wesley Welcher, F
Undrafted in 2006

Welcher, the first expansion draft selection by the Fog Devils, was counted on to be an important contributor up front, having played last with the Moncton Wildcats. He put up a solid 47 points in his first taste of top-six ice time, though he ran into consistency issues over the course of the season. With the top three forwards from last year’s squad either gone from the team (Sundh, Brophy), or on the shelf with injury (Bachand), it will be imperative that Welcher brings his experience and talent to the table, and take on a leading role with the Fog Devils squad this season, or things could get difficult in a hurry in Newfoundland.

Mario Kempe, F
Draft eligible in 2007

Kempe was the Fog Devils first of two selections in the 2006 CHL Import Draft, selected from the highly-successful MoDo program in Sweden. Kempe played last season with their under-20 squad, and posted an impressive 20 goals in 36 games. Kempe was also a member of the Swedish under-18 team. Kempe is a highly-skilled forward with great speed and puck creativity, however, he is still relatively inexperienced at high levels, and may have a slow adjustment period to the North American game. Still, the fact that he is in North America will give the talented forward more visibility to NHL scouts in his draft year.

Luke Gallant, D
Undrafted in 2006

Gallant was a pleasant surprise last year for St. John’s, after having been selected from Cape Breton in the expansion draft. Gallant put up a massive 56 points, good enough for third on the team. One of the 20-year-old players on the Fog Devils roster, Gallant, alongside Zack Firlotte, provide a physical brand of hockey and strong two-way play on the developing blue line. The leader of an ever-improving defense, Gallant’s continued strong play will go a long way in his search for a contract following his overage season.

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