The wait is nearly over. While much of the hockey world gears up for the start of training camp, teams around the QMJHL are preparing for the real thing: the long grind that is the regular season.
Today we turn our attention towards those teams making up the Maritimes Division, including a potential President’s Cup favourite and a future powerhouse in the making.
The Maritimes Division has been without a title since the 2012-13 season that saw the Halifax Mooseheads march to victory, and while there is no such clear front-runner in the league this year, many are pointing to the Saint John Sea Dogs as the team to beat.
Built to contend for a President’s Cup this year, the Titan are undoubtedly the stiffest competition in a division the Sea Dogs seem set to run away with.
Bathurst will be a team that has little trouble scoring, boasting one of the scariest top lines in the entire Quebec league. Antoine Morand will be the player scouts travel to see; he’s currently considered a first-round talent for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. Joining him will be Vladimir Kuznetsov (who was somewhat surprisingly undrafted this past June), and over-ager Christophe Boivin.
If there is one thing keeping the Titan from truly competing with Saint John, it would be a relatively weak defensive unit. The addition of Luc Deschenes will certainly help, but is unlikely to be enough for them to catch the Sea Dogs.
What Bathurst lacks on the blue line, however, is made up for in goal with Reilly Pickard commanding the crease. The 18-year-old Halifax-native had an impressive showing last season and will likely be considered one of the league’s top netminders this season behind an improved lineup.
Cape Breton Screaming Eagles
The Screaming Eagles spent a very long time building towards these past two seasons, and came away with very little to show for their efforts. With offensive stars like Evgeni Svechnikov and, in all likelihood, Pierre-Luc Dubois leaving the team for the professional ranks, a rebuild seems imminent in Cape Breton.
There is simply no replacing the amount of talent lost, but the Eagles will at least try with new Russian import Vasily Glotov, a seventh-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres. Peyton Hoyt, who the team chose in the first round of the QMJHL Draft last season, should find an increased role, if he can stay healthy.
Giovanni Fiore and Massimo Carozza will be relied upon heavily as over-agers — that is, if Fiore returns to the team after news that he would stick with the Montreal Canadiens for training camp.
On the defensive side of things, the Eagles got weaker when Loik Léveillé opted to leave the team. Olivier Leblanc could return as a reliable number one blue-liner, but may also be lost to the pros.
Perhaps the biggest question mark for Cape Breton this season, however, is in goal. Kyle Jessiman (a veteran of 13 QMJHL games) and rookie Kevin Mandolese are set to share the crease on the Island, giving the Screaming Eagles a very inexperienced tandem.
While Bathurst has been mentioned as the only team in the Maritimes that could really pose a challenge for Saint John, the Charlottetown Islanders would politely disagree. At least, if not for a long-term injury to Daniel Sprong that will likely see him out of action until after Christmas.
Sprong could have been the league’s top player this season, but the Islanders will instead look to Senators draft choice Filip Chlapik to lead their offence; a tough task for the Czech as his production regressed last season. The Islanders will still be a playoff team, however, and could do damage as a lower seed once Sprong returns.
Defensively, the Islanders will look very different than last season. After trading Luc Deschenes to Bathurst and losing Alexis Vanier to the ECHL, Charlottetown will turn to new addition Cody Donaghey, who should perform very well as a 20-year-old. They will also welcome Finnish import Saku Vesterinen, who is one of many question marks on this team.
It almost seems unfair how quickly the Mooseheads have been able to turn things around since losing the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin, and Nikolaj Ehlers. Yet here we stand, on the verge of another strong season from the powerhouse Halifax team. Inexperienced though they might be, the Mooseheads could be an entertaining team to watch this season, and certainly for those to come.
Mirroring the days of MacKinnon and Drouin, the Mooseheads were able to acquire the first- and second-overall picks in the draft, selecting forward Benoit-Olivier Groulx and defenceman Jared McIsaac, both of whom will have the opportunity to play important minutes. Joining them will be draft-eligible Swiss forward Nico Hischier, who should have little trouble adjusting to the North American game.
While the focus will certainly be on those three, the Mooseheads boast more young talent still, including defenceman Jocktan Chainey who had a solid rookie showing last season and is set to take a big step forward in his development.
Too young yet to truly challenge for a President’s Cup, all eyes will be on the Mooseheads this time next year.
The era of Connor Garland is over in Moncton, and the test for the Wildcats this season will be how their offence adjusts to losing its most potent weapon.
If they are to replace the production of Garland, it begins with Cameron Askew. The American scored at just under a point-per-game pace last season, and was able to physically dominate his opposition. He won’t be alone in his effort, though, as he will be joined by Kevin and Kelly Klima. San Jose Sharks draft pick Manuel Wiederer may return to Germany this season, dealing yet another blow to the Moncton offence.
The Wildcats’ defence is a big question mark, and everything is likely to run through experienced blue-liner Adam Holwell. For a team without much depth at this position, however, the ‘Cats also lack a bona fide star on the back end. They won’t get much help from their goaltending, either, which is definitely an issue this team will need to address if they hope to find success this season.
Saint John Sea Dogs
Likely the favourite to win the President’s Cup this season, it seems fitting to end our season preview with the Saint John Sea Dogs. It has been a long process getting the team to this point, but the Dogs are now set to make a return to the Q finals, and potentially to the Memorial Cup, which they won in 2011.
The star of this team will unquestionably be Joe Veleno, the first player to ever be granted exceptional status in the QMJHL. With 43 points as a 15-year-old last season, Veleno will be a serious offensive threat.
Scarier still is what surrounds him, including the likes of Nathan Noel, Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick Mathieu Joseph, and 20-year-old centre Matthew Highmore.
While the firepower of the Sea Dogs is remarkable, the strength of this team could actually be on the blue line, provided Thomas Chabot doesn’t make the jump to the NHL with Ottawa.
Luke Green, a Winnipeg Jets draft pick, could be a number one on more than a few teams in the league, and the Sea Dogs also feature Boston Bruins first-round pick Jakub Zboril. Rounding out their top four is Finnish tower Oliver Felixson, giving the Sea Dogs a diverse and talented group that might just be the league’s best.