It has been a long, and somewhat hectic off-season for teams around the QMJHL. That, of course, is nothing new given the ever-changing nature of major-junior rosters.
Summer after summer, clubs deal with the loss of over-age players, court European imports, and welcome players too young yet to consume alcohol, placing upon them the expectations of a city. Such is life in the CHL.
The summer, though, is past. This coming Thursday marks the beginning of the 2016-17 QMJHL season — one which, as always, should prove just how much difference a few months can make.
We begin our season preview by taking a look at the West Division, home of the defending President’s Cup champion.
After an incredible and unexpected victory in the first round of the playoffs over Val d’Or last year, the Armada will hope for an improved regular-season performance in 2016-17. That, however, may prove difficult given the quality found within their division. Still, the Armada have the talent to surprise us again and it starts with their defence.
The key addition this season for the Armada is unquestionably Jeremy Roy. Though he took a step back offensively in Sherbrooke last season, Roy is a top-end player in the league and will be relied on heavily by this Blainville squad. He is not alone on the blue-line, of course, as Pascal Corbeil and over-ager T.J. Melancon should log big minutes.
Offensively, there are more question marks, but they will be helped by newcomer Alexandre Alain who joins the team from Gatineau. Alain will play a larger role in Blainville than he did with the Olympiques, and will bring with him valuable experience from Tampa Bay Lightning training camp. The other story up front for the Armada is Joel Teasdale, the Quebec native being one of the QMJHL’s top NHL draft-eligible prospects this season.
The big question is whether the additions of Roy and Alain, along with the development of their young players, can offset the likely loss of goaltender Samuel Montembault. The Armada’s success last season began and ended with Montembault, who is likely to turn pro this season.
The Voltigeurs finished last in this division a year ago and were unceremoniously swept from the post-season by the eventual champion Huskies. To expect that narrative to change much this season would be a bit optimistic, but there is definitely hope for the future.
A major reason for that is incoming head coach Dominic Ducharme, who has previously seen major success with the Halifax Mooseheads. Ducharme is one of the top coaches in the league, but will face an uphill battle in 2016-17 with a rebuilding squad.
With that being said, there will be some interesting players to keep tabs on this season in Drummondville. Mathieu Sevigny was invited to Calgary Flames training camp and should take a step forward this season, while Russian winger Pavel Koltygin joins the club after being selected ninth-overall in the CHL Import Draft. Of course, all eyes will be on rookie netminder Oliver Rodrigue, who was a third-overall pick of the Voltigeurs.
If there is a team that could dethrone Rouyn-Noranda atop the West Division standings this season, it is likely to be the Olympiques. Having finished third in the division last year, Gatineau should take a step forward thanks to high-end talent at the top of their lineup.
Vitaly Abramov was, simply put, one of the best players in the QMJHL last season. More impressive was that it was his rookie season in the league, and we can expect even better numbers in 2016-17. Alex Dostie and Yakov Trenin will also return, giving the Olympiques a very high-powered attack.
Defensively, the Olympiques are stable. Nicolas Meloche leads the group, and will play an important role in replacing the offence lost as a result of Alexandre Carrier turning pro.
It’s between the pipes, however, where Gatineau has an embarrassment of riches. With not one but two of the QMJHL’s top goaltenders in Mathieu Bellemare and Mark Grametbauer, it will be interesting to see how things unfold in the Olympiques’ crease. Could one be traded for help elsewhere, or will Gatineau run with the two-headed goaltending monster?
The reigning President’s Cup champions will be looking to defend their title this season, and certainly have the roster in place to do it. While the loss of 41-goal scorer Francis Perron to the AHL hurts, the Huskies remain one of the most talented squads in the Quebec league and should have little trouble finishing atop the West Division once again.
Leading the way offensively will be Jean-Christophe Beaudin and Latvian import Martins Dzierkals, both of whom were scoring at over a point-per-game pace last season. If Antoine Waked returns to Rouyn-Noranda as expected, the Huskies will still have only used up two of their three over-age spots, meaning the potential is there to add even more firepower.
The backbone of the Huskies, however, is an impressive defensive core that may prove to be the best in the league this season. Jeremy Lauzon is undoubtedly in the conversation when it comes to the QMJHL’s top blue-liner, and is joined by the towering Philippe Myers, forming a deadly top pairing who can move the puck very well.
Just two teams miss the post-season fun in the QMJHL, and the Sherbrooke Phoenix have to be among the favourites to do so in 2016-17. With very little to work with, the Phoenix are unquestionably the weakest team in a division that will likely beat up on them all season.
Canadiens prospect Daniel Audette will likely join the St. John’s Ice Caps full time this year, leaving the team without their leader and with big question marks offensively. Tenth-overall draft selection Anderson MacDonald is a dark horse for Sherbrooke, and should have every opportunity to find playing time, but may struggle to adapt to the major-junior game without much help around him.
Evan Fitzpatrick is one of the better puck-stoppers in the Quebec league, but it is unlikely he will be able to save this team’s season on his own. If nothing else, though, the second-round pick of the St. Louis Blues gives Phoenix fans something to be at least a little excited about.
Val d’Or Foreurs
A likely middle-of-the-pack team in the West Division this season, the Foreurs have a strong roster that just isn’t quite at the level of Rouyn-Noranda or Gatineau this season. Losing five of their top six point scorers from last season, there is little reason to believe the Foreurs pose as real a threat as they did in 2015-16.
Still, the Foreurs do boast the likes of Julien Gauthier, who is likely to be one of the league’s top scorers. The question really seems to be whether Val d’Or will keep Gauthier or move him to kick-start a rebuild after losing so many key players to the professional ranks.
Captain Oliver Galipeau and over-age forward Alexis Pepin will provide much-needed leadership for a club slipping out of title contention. Certainly not bad enough to miss the playoffs are the Foreurs, but the future has to be something of a concern.