QMJHL West Division preview

By Phil Laugher

The QMJHL’s Western Division, like the Eastern Division, is also wide open. However, the quality of teams involved in the West seems to be a bit better than in the East, and they are more numerous. In the West, the defending Memorial Cup champions, the Quebec Remparts, are returning nearly the full roster from last season, headlined by potential first overall draft pick in 2007 Angelo Esposito. A very deep Drummondville Voltiguers squad with Guillaume Latendresse at the helm is immediately at their heels, while the still strong Gatineau Olympiques and Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, as well as the vastly improved Val d’Or Foreurs cannot be counted out of the race, and will likely be in contention to the end. Factor in the always unpredictable, offense-laden Rimouski Oceanic, and the Western Division will be very entertaining to watch.

Baie-Comeau Drakkar
Last season’s record: 30-38-2-0, 62 points, 7th in Western Division

The Drakkar were in rebuilding mode last season, and liquidated much of their talent at the trade deadline last season. The Drakkar should be vastly improved this season, though, as they are returning both their starting goaltender in Michael Dupont, as well as their top five scorers from last year’s squad. A team on the rise, the Drakkar should get themselves into the top half of the division.

Players to watch:

Francois Bouchard, F
Drafted by the Washington Capitals in the 2nd round, 2006

Bouchard had a surprise performance in his second full season last year, leading the Drakkar with 102 points in 69 games. An adept playmaker with great offensive zone instincts, who also has strong finishing ability, Bouchard is a complete offensive player, though his skating could use a little bit of work. It will take another big effort this season to trump last year’s performance, but if he can get over his consistency issues from last season, then there is a chance at a rise in point totals.

Michael Dupont, G
Drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 6th round, 2006

Dupont will be back for his third year as the Drakkar starting goaltender. In spite of their mediocre record, Dupont performed admirably between the pipes for Baie-Comeau, posting a 19-24 record in 48 games. Not overly quick in moving from post-to-post, Dupont tends to rely on improvisation between the pipes when caught out of position. Still, he is fairly positionally sound, and kept the Drakkar in games where they were outworked last season.

Benjamin Breault, F
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 7th round, 2006

Breault was the third-leading scorer with the Drakkar last season, picking up 68 points in as many games. The former first-round QMJHL draft pick improved as the season progressed, after the departure of numerous veterans at the trade deadline. Now, likely playing in a first line role for the Drakkar, Breault will be counted on to continue his offensive progression and improve his defensive play. A good skater and a solid playmaker, Breault should be able to improve on his point totals from last season.

Chicoutimi Sagueneens
Last season’s record: 51-15-2-2, 106 points, 2nd in Western Division

Chicoutimi will suffer greatly this season as a result of the departure of numerous key players from last year’s squad. Gone from the Sags this year are sniper Maxime Boisclair, and import playmakers Marek Zagrapan and Stanislav Lascek, as well as former starting goaltender Alexander Vincent. It was hoped that David Desharnais would return to help prop up the fledgling offense, however, he may end up playing in the AHL in Tampa Bay’s system, after having a strong rookie camp. It could be a long season for Richard Martel’s squad.

Players to watch:

Juraj Mikus, F
Drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the 4th round, 2005

Mikus was drafted by the Sagueneens in the first round of the 2006 CHL Import Draft, having played in his native Slovakia for the past several seasons. Encouraged by the Montreal Canadiens, who selected him in the 2005 NHL Entry draft in the fourth round, to come to North America, Mikus will now be counted on as one of the more important offensive contributors on the team. He spent much of last season playing for Skalica’s main team in the Slovakian league, playing as a boy among men, where he picked up 11 points. He also played for Slovakia’s World Junior entry.

Nicolas Blanchard, F
Drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes in the 6th round, 2005

Blanchard did not improve very greatly on his rookie season after having been drafted as a result of it. Playing on the offensive juggernaut Sagueneens, Blanchard only picked up 44 points, 5 more than his first season. He has played well in Carolina’s camp, and that increased confidence should help him when he returns to Chicoutimi, particularly when he is coming back to top line ice. Playing alongside Mikus will give the playmaking centerman a target.

Kirill Tupulov, D
Drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the 3rd round, 2006

Tupulov came to an agreement with Chicoutimi after having played in the Toronto area in the past couple of seasons. He saw his draft star shine after playing strongly in a series of international tournaments for Russia. Boasting great size with a mean, physical presences and solid two-way play, Tupulov will continue to get acclimated to the North American game as he hones his play, likely seeing big minutes on the Sags blue line.

Drummondville Voltiguers
Last season’s record: 37-28-3-2, 79 points, 5th in Western Division

This year was supposed to be Drummondville’s year to make some noise, as they had been building towards it for many years. However, the potential for success has soured in the past couple of months. Problems began around the draft, when Maxime Aubut decided not to return for this season, while shortly before camp, defensemen Nicolas d’Aoust and Lucas Longpre also backed out. Still, even with these losses, their defense is strong. Then, early in training camp, immensely talented Columbus draft pick Derick Brassard was lost for an extended period with a shoulder injury after a dirty hit. They still have plenty of depth, however, their mettle will be tested with these early problems.

Players to watch:

Guillaume Latendresse, F
Drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2nd round, 2005

Assuming he returns from the Montreal camp without having made the squad, Latendresse will once again be leaned upon heavily by the Voltiguers offense, particularly with the absence of Brassard for the first couple of months of the season. He worked on his skating over the course of last season, and showed his continued offensive touch, and will have to be at the top of his game, physically and mentally, if Drummondville is to come out of the blocks on the right foot.

Derick Brassard, F
Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 1st round in 2006

Brassard’s dislocated shoulder injury as a result of an awkward hit against the Gatineau Olympiques in the early part of this year’s training camp will keep the 2006 sixth overall selection on the shelf, likely until the end of December. When Brassard is on his game, he makes everyone around him better. His chemistry with Latendresse will be greatly missed. Thankfully for Drummondville, they have good depth up front, which helps lessen the hurt caused by Brassard’s injury. Still, they will likely be counting the days until the diminutive centerman returns to the line-up.

Pier-Olivier Pelletier, G
Drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes in the 2nd round, 2005

Pelletier’s sophomore season was ruined after a torn labrum put him on the shelf around the midway point of the season. Pelletier’s health and strong player, perhaps moreso than anyone else on the team – even Brassard – will be integral in ensuring the Voltiguers meet their potential, as there is little goaltending depth behind Pelletier, and should he go down again, important parts of the Drummondville team would have to be moved to find a replacement who likely wouldn’t be akin to Pelletier in regards to skill level and focus.

Gatineau Olympiques
Last season’s record: 40-23-4-3, 87 points, 4th in Western Division

The Olympiques have undergone many changes since last year. Gone are mainstay goaltender David Tremblay, and dynamic offensive-minded defenseman Pierre-Luc Lessard, while up front, Gatineau was able to acquire talented Edmonton prospect Slava Trukhno from the P.E.I. Rocket to help complement Claude Giroux up front. Boasting an underrated veteran line-up, Gatineau will look to once again look to quietly make noise in the Western Division.

Claude Giroux, F
Drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1st round, 2006

Giroux burst onto the QMJHL scene as a walk-on into Gatineau’s training camp last season, and saw perhaps the greatest increase in draft rating, which saw the diminutive forward get drafted in the first round. A testament to all those who were ever told they were too small to make it in today’s hockey, Giroux brings heart and skill far beyond his small stature, as well as good leadership ability, lightning quick skating ability, and a willingness to get his nose dirty. Already a 100 point man in the QMJHL, Giroux now has a dynamite passer on his line in Trukhno, and could trump those numbers. Giroux was named offensive player of the week this past week.

Slava Trukhno, F
Drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the 4th round, 2006

Trukhno was unhappy with the P.E.I. Rocket’s relative lack of desire to put together a winning team, and asked for a trade. The trade was made, and he was sent to a team that is always committed to putting a strong product on the ice in Gatineau. Playing alongside some talented forwards in Giroux and Brett Morrison, Trukhno, a slick, puck-handling forward with good size, should be able to flourish in his new surroundings. Coming off a 96-point season, Trukhno should be able to improve on that number in Gatineau’s offense-laden roster.

Matthew Pistilli, F
Draft eligible in 2007

Pistilli was picked up from Shawinigan at the trade deadline, after he was floundering in the fourth line with the Cataractes. With Gatineau, Pistilli was given a greater role with the squad, and ended up picking up 23 points in 32 games, nearly tripling his Shawinigan output. A late-1988 birthday who will be eligible for this year’s draft, Pistilli will see some time playing special teams, as well as a likely top-six role to hone his skill.

Quebec Remparts
Last season’s record: 52-16-1-1, 106 points, 1st in Western Division

The defending Memorial Cup champions may have lost the most talented player in the league last season in Nashville prospect Alexander Radulov, though they went a long way in replacing him by drafting the Bashkirov twins, Ruslan and Roman in the CHL Import draft. Complementing likely top-three draft selection Angelo Esposito up front, the future – and present, for that matter – remains very bright.

Players to watch:

Angelo Esposito, F
Draft eligible in 2007

The top player coming out of the Quebec League this season is Esposito. He may very well have been the top player coming out of the league last season based on his first-year performance, if he had been eligible. An immensely talented, complete player, the Remparts are now Esposito’s team, even though he is only 17. Still playing alongside diminutive pivot Brent Aubin up front, as well as the Bashkirovs, Esposito should be in line for a 100-point season, and could compete in the World Juniors as well.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic, D
Drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the 2nd round, 2005

Vlasic rounded into form offensively on the Remparts blue line, anchoring a lethal power play unit, and picking up 71 points along the way. With decent size and quickness, the puck-moving defenseman is also very solid in his own end, and brings one of the better two-way games in the league to the table. Already under contract with the Sharks, there is some relatively unfounded concern that he might not return this season. Unlikely as that scenario is this year, Vlasic will likely be one of the last cuts. Coupled with a potential trip to the World Juniors for Canada, and Vlasic’s point total will likely remain unchanged, though his value remains high for the Quebec defense.

Joey Ryan, D
Drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2nd round, 2006

The mean, physical, stay-at-home defenseman will return to the Remparts for his fourth season, patrolling the Quebec blue-line. With great size and spirit, and a willingness to drop the gloves to protect his teammates, Ryan has continued to develop both the offensive and defensive sides of his game, slowly but surely, over the past few seasons. With a Memorial Cup ring in his possession, and a contract to play for at season’s end, Ryan will continue to be a threat to opposition puck carriers coming through center and into the Remparts’ zone.

Rimouski Oceanic
Last season’s record; 10-57-2-1, 23 points, 10th in Western Division

Though the Oceanic finished last in the league by a fair margin last season, they did not win the draft lottery that would have landed them Yann Sauve. That distinction went to Saint John. Rimouski was able to still pull off a draft-day coup of their own, making a series of moves that gave them four of the top eight draft selections; moves which will likely set them on a path to a potential Memorial Cup berth at some point in the next few years. In addition to highly touted talents Philippe Cornet and Patrice Cormier, Rimouski also acquired the services of Florida draft pick Michael Frolik by way of the CHL Import Draft. Rimouski’s offense will be dynamite in the very near future.

Players to watch:

Michael Frolik, F
Drafted by the Florida Panthers in the 1st round, 2006

The enigmatic Frolik fell from astronomical heights and talk of a first overall draft selection at the start of last season, and ended up going tenth overall to the Panthers after a relatively mediocre season in the Czech league. Frolik and the Panthers decided it would be in their mutual best interests if Frolik came across the Atlantic to develop his game. Frolik will suit up for the Oceanic, and will be given plenty of playing time, and will look to regularly light the lamp as he gets used to the intricacies of the North American game, while giving Florida’s scouting staff more accessibility.

Maxime Tanguay, F
Draft eligible in 2007

Tanguay came to the Quebec league highly sought after, based largely on the laurels of being the brother of Calgary forward Alex Tanguay. Maxime has had an up and down career in the QMJHL thus far, one which began with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, but saw him moved to Rimouski at the deadline last season. Playing in an incredibly potent offense should be an impetus to push Tanguay to loftier heights, as he floundered to only 27 points in his sophomore campaign. Likely seeing special teams and second line time, Tanguay will need to develop more this season.

David Skokan, F
Draft eligible in 2007

Another of Rimouski’s high-impact draft eligible players for the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Skokan will look to have a breakout season after a wholly mediocre rookie campaign with the Oceanic, which had lots to do with playing in a losing environment in his first season in North America. Immensely talented offensively, with a far better supporting cast, Skokan should easily triple last season’s paltry 21 points as he pushes towards a relatively early draft selection.

Rouyn-Noranda Huskies
Last season’s record: 43-22-2-3, 91 points, 3rd in Western Division

Rouyn-Noranda is one of three teams, alongside Drummondville and Quebec, that will likely contend for the division crown. They will be returning many of their top players from last year’s squad, including goaltender Jean-Philippe Levasseur, and top offensive talents Hugo Carpentier and Justin Munden. Include one of the best offensive defensemen in the league into the mix in Ivan Vishnevskiy, and Rouyn is another team with a potent offense and great depth.

Players to watch:

Ivan Vishnevskiy, D
Drafted by the Dallas Stars in the 1st round, 2006

The speedy, smooth skating, offensively-creative Russian defenseman returns to the Huskies for his second season in the QMJHL, coming off a surprising first round draft selection in Vancouver by the Dallas Stars. Coming off a near point-per-game pace in his rookie season, with an even more experienced group of players to play with this season, Vishnevskiy should challenge for the lead among defensemen in points this season, while probably appearing in the World Junior Championships

Jean-Philippe Levasseur, G
Drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in the 7th round, 2005

Levasseur saw a great increase all of his statistical categories in his second full season with the Huskies after his poor first season as starter caused his draft rating to fall. Another year older and more mature, with a strong team, and particularly, a strong defense playing in front of him, Levasseur should continue to improve his play. A great butterfly netminder with strong positioning, another good season will go a long way in moving Levasseur quickly up the Anaheim depth chart.

Hugo Carpentier, F
Drafted by the Calgary Flames in the 4th round, 2006

Carpentier will be an integral part of the burgeoning Huskies offense, after coming off a point-per-game season last year, good enough for third on the team. A relatively early draft selection by the Calgary Flames, Carpentier has a lot to prove and live up to with his fourth round placing, and will look to improve his point totals from one year ago. A hard working, tenacious fore-checker with great offensive instincts to go along with his gritty play, Carpentier never takes a night off. That will have to continue if the Huskies are to succeed in the competitive Western Division this season.

Shawinigan Cataractes
Last season’s record: 37-28-3-2, 79 points, 6th in Western Division

The Cataractes are coming off a middling season, and are missing much of their offensive talent from last season from last season in Alex Bourret and Benoit Mondou, as well as their goaltender, Julien Ellis to the professional ranks. Much to their chagrin, they did little to replace these integral pieces of their past successes, and look to be in for a long season.

Players to watch:

Jean-Philippe Paquet, D
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 6th round, 2005

Paquet will once again lead the Cataractes defensive corp, as he enters his fourth season in the league. A smooth skating defenseman who has improved his offensive game in the past two seasons after having gone goalless in nearly his first 100 games, Paquet will be facing some long nights and lots of ice time in Shawinigan this year.

Kyell Henegan, F
Drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the 7th round, 2006

The Devils took a flyer on the hulking Shawinigan winger in the seventh round, in the hopes that he will develop into something more than an enforcer. A banging winger with great size on Shawinigan’s forward lines, and a willingness to drop the gloves, Henegan will have to bring more than that to the table this season. With offense at a premium, Henegan will have to improve mightily on his three-goal performance last season. A progression along the lines of last year’s Kevin Cormier or Marty Doyle improvements, into the 15-goal range, would be a definite plus.

Francis Pare, F
Undrafted in 2006

The last best offensive holdover from last year’s squad, Pare is a playmaker who meshed greatly with Mondou and Bourret last season, compiling 26 goals and 74 points. It will now be Pare who has to be the leader in the Shawinigan forward group. The diminutive centerman will be relied upon greatly from his two-plus years in the QMJHL, and will have to use his playmaking ability to help generate offense for a developing cast.

Val d’Or Foreurs
Last season’s record: 28-39-1-2, 59 points, 8th in Western Division

The Foreurs will look to improve upon a poor 2005-06 campaign. They made a key acquisition in Moncton sniper Brad Marchand, who comes to northern Quebec as future considerations in the Luc Bourdon trade at last year’s deadline. He will be joined by former 50-goal scorer Mathieu Roy, who also comes over from the Eastern Division, from Bathurst. A new netminder between the pipes in Chicoutimi’s Alexander Vincent gives a fresh start to both the team and the player. Coupled with the dynamic offensive/defensive duo of Kristopher Letang and Sebastien Bisaillon on the point, and things are looking up in Val d’Or.

Players to watch:

Brad Marchand, F
Drafted by the Boston Bruins in the 3rd round, 2006

Marchand was a key part in Moncton’s run to the President’s Cup, and played for the Wildcats in the Memorial Cup. This experience, coupled with the international exposure it presented, put Marchand square in the minds of many a scout, and was key in his getting drafted as high as he did, in spite of his lack of size. There were concerns that he might not report to Val d’Or, but those proved to be unfounded, and Marchand is ready to be an offensive leader on a team that has not had too many positives in the last few seasons.

Kristopher Letang, D
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 3rd round, 2005

Letang was one of the few Quebec league representatives on last year’s Canadian World Junior squad, and the experience helped immensely in further improving the 19-year-old defenseman’s game and his confidence, both of which were already strong. One fo the better offensive defensemen in the league, Letang’s 68 points from the blue line was second to very few players, and his mean streak, which was not very apparent in his rookie campaign, came to the forefront. A triple-headed monster whose lack of size seems not to be an issue, Letang could be looking at yet another appearance for Canada this winter.

Alexander Vincent, G
Drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in the 4th round in 2005

Vincent was the goaltender which Chicoutimi had entrusted in their hopeful run towards a championship last season. He had played strongly in the 2004-05 season, and all looked to be well for the following season. He stumbled early in the season, prompting Chicoutimi to make a trade for a more experienced netminder in Sylvain Michaud, and Vincent was relegated to the backup role. Now, traded to Val d’Or, Vincent has once again been entrusted to lead a talented team. With something to prove, and a fresh start, he will look to erase the bad memories of last season.

Victoriaville Tigres
Last season’s record: 26-42-1-1, 54 points, 9th in Western Division

Victoriaville has not had much to be happy about in the last couple of seasons, and unfortunately, it does not appear as if this will be the season that they break back into the top half of the Western Division, as many teams ahead of them are far stronger. They will probably be improved in the standings, as much of their team from last season has returned, and they have added two new high-profile European imports. How far up they rise in the division remains to be seen.

Players to watch:

Morten Madsen, F
Drafted by the Minnesota Wild in the 4th round, 2005

The Tigres added the Danish import – the second in the league after Gatineau’s Trukhno – with the tenth overall selection in the CHL Import Draft, trading up with PEI to secure a second selection in the top 10. Madsen last played with Frolunda in Sweden, also having seen a few games in the Swedish Elite league. A versatile, slick puck-handling forward, Victoriaville hopes that Madsen will be able to make a seamless transition to the North American game. He has picked up five points in his first two games in the league, so it appears that adjustment period will be a short one.

Jan Kolarik, F
Draft eligible in 2007

The first import selected by Victoriaville was Kolarik in the Import Draft, who last played with Vitkovice in the Czech Republic, taking him with the seventh overall selection. A late-1988 birthday, Kolarik will be eligible for the draft this coming season. He posted a very strong 21 goals in 44 games with the Vitkovice under-20 squad last season. A smooth skater with good size, Kolarik will be counted on heavily in Victoriaville.

Jean-Christophe Blanchard, G
Undrafted in 2006

Blanchard began last season as the starting goaltender for the Memorial Cup hosts, the Moncton Wildcats. When it became apparent that the young man was not yet ready for such a heavy workload as of yet, he was shipped to Victoriaville for eventual starting goaltender Josh Tordjman. Blanchard took over the Tigres starting role, and ran into difficulty, playing with a far weaker defensive unit in front of him. That unit is now a year older, as is Blanchard, and the number one job is once again his. He will look to bounce back after a disappointing campaign.

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