AROUND THE Q: Maritimes teams should be among the top contenders in the QMJHL
When June 2022 arrives, the best in junior hockey will compete for the Memorial Cup in Saint John, New Brunswick, but there will also be an impressive array of elite talent in the Maritimes throughout the year.
There is no shortage of President’s Cup title contenders, but most appear to reside in the Atlantic time zone.
The Sea Dogs apparently built for this moment before they even knew they would host the Memorial Cup – a process that began after their last league championship in 2017, which was followed by two years without the playoffs.
While these early bits were part of the plan, shipping has not been smooth since in the port city.
Young coach Josh Dixon was fired for the team’s lack of progress in 2019-20, but the man brought in 2020-21, Greg Gilbert, only lasted one season behind the bench. Former rugged QMJHL winger Gordie Dwyer is now tasked with correcting the course.
In addition to a new coach, the Dogs traded for a forward with more than a point per game in William Dufour (a draft pick for the New York Islanders) and goaltender Jonathan Lemieux.
Saint John’s troubles in the past seemed to lead their talented roster to pay attention to the defensive end of the game. Concerns did not abate as this month began with a 0-4 start, a pair of losses to each of their main rivals in the Maritimes – Charlottetown and Acadie-Bathurst. But Dwyer is probably a little more optimistic after his team claimed a 3-1 victory in Charlottetown on Thanksgiving weekend.
The Prince Edward Island team is not to be overlooked in the title conversation despite the loss of the league’s two leading scorers to CÃ©dric Desruisseaux and Thomas Casey, as well as record goaltender Colten Ellis, these three having passed the stage of junior hockey.
The Isles paid a large sum for elite 20-year-old forward Xavier Simoneau with the intention of winning. Despite Simoneau’s offensive power, the Islanders could be Saint John’s antithesis as the Red Rock club’s strength is on the blue line with three NHL rookies. (Vegas prospect Lukas Cormier is among the favorites to be named the league’s top defenseman).
Meanwhile, Bathurst has yet to stumble, going 5-0 in early October. With nine players attending NHL training camp, depth is a strength of a group of Titans that has no problem with Czech international and Detroit prospect Jan Bednar. However, the Titan’s prized off-season acquisition may never play a single game with the team – Hendrix Lapierre, acquired in a draft week trade with Chicoutimi, will kick off the NHL campaign with Washington.
Lapierre’s absence puts the Titan in the record books. In his absence, the Titan roster is made up entirely of players born and raised outside the province of Quebec. The only time this has happened before in the QMJHL was with the 1984-85 Plattsburgh Pioneers. The New York-based club iced an all-American roster and lost 17 straight games to begin their existence. The franchise fell back and their games were erased from the league’s record books.
Quebec clubs will certainly have their say in crowning a champion, probably nothing more than the representative of the capital, the Remparts.
Like Saint John, Quebec has 20 players aged 18 or older, and also like the Sea Dogs, they acquired a star forward from the NHL in July, Saint-Louis prospect Zachary Bolduc and a goaltender. 20-year-old Fabio Iacobo, who supported Victoriaville at the President’s Cup last June.
Shawinigan will also be in the title conversation, spurred on by the return of Mavrik Bourque, who is set to make his 2021-22 debut tonight in Cape Breton after a lengthy stint at training camp in Dallas.
The game at Center 200 will be the Maritimes’ first regular season game against Quebec in Q since Moncton’s 4-0 victory over Drummondville on March 8, 2020.
Paired with Edmonton prospect Xavier Bourgault, the Cataractes are the only QMJHL club to have two NHL first-round picks.
Many eyes will be on head coach Daniel Renaud, who was fired by Shawinigan in February 2020 and brought back after his Val-d’Or team failed in the 2021 final against Victoriaville.
Surprises could also await the league – a somewhat unknown but experienced team from Blainville-Boisbriand is on a 5-0 start. Drummondville, Halifax and Gatineau have large pools of talented 17-year-olds who could disrupt contenders’ plans if their potential stars reach elite status early.
As always in October, the possibilities are still endless.
Patrick McNeil is the game-by-game announcer for the Cape Breton Eagles.