The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League Playoffs get underway this Friday as the league's top teams prepare to do battle for the President's Cup. Also at stake is a spot in the 2016 Memorial Cup, hosted by the WHL's Red Deer Rebels.
For those unfamiliar with the QMJHL's playoff format, 16 of the league's 18 teams qualify for the post-season tournament. Seeded in order of overall standings (with the exception of the three division leaders who take up the top three seeds), there are no divisional rounds. The first-place team in the league takes on the 16th-ranked club, second faces 15th, and so on.
With a number of very strong teams at the top of the standings, the first round may feature a few blowouts, but we can certainly expect things to get very interesting as the playoffs progress.
The odds-on favourite to come out of the playoffs as President's Cup champion has to be the league-leading Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, who have dominated competition all season long. Ranked in Week 25 as the top team in the entire CHL, the Huskies should have no trouble easing past a Voltigeurs team that had exactly half as many wins as their first-round opponent this year.
Rouyn-Noranda has lost only 14 games throughout their entire 68-game schedule, with just nine of those losses coming in regulation. Their record of 54-9-5 gives the team a point percentage of .831: a regular-season performance rivaled only in recent memory by the 2012-13 Halifax Mooseheads (who would go on to win the Memorial Cup in Saskatoon).
Compared to those Mooseheads, however, the Huskies are a team with a less star-studded cast. San Jose Sharks prospect Timo Meier is the only first-round NHL draft pick on the roster, and even he was acquired mid-season from Halifax.
Still, there is no lack of QMJHL star power in Rouyn-Noranda. The team boasts the league's second-leading scorer in Ottawa Senators seventh-round pick Francis Perron, who has tallied an astounding 107 points in 62 games. A team with a tremendous amount of depth (six players have reached the 20-goal mark this season), the Huskies should walk through the opening round quite easily.
On the other hand, the Voltigeurs are a team that has relied primarily on two players — Alex Barre-Boulet and Michael Carcone — each recording 89 points on the year. If they are able to steal a game or two from the Huskies, it will need to be through the efforts of their only truly dangerous duo. Otherwise, a four-game sweep should come as no surprise.
Worth noting is that these teams last met very recently, just last Friday, ending in a triumphant 7-3 victory for the Huskies. Rouyn-Noranda won the season series 4-2.
While the Huskies have had a season to remember in Rouyn-Noranda, the Shawinigan Cataractes are another team poised to do damage in the QMJHL playoffs. Led by New York Islanders first-round draft pick Anthony Beauvillier and 98-point scorer Alexis D'Aoust, the Cataractes will be hoping to return to the glory they last experienced in 2012 when they won the Memorial Cup as tournament hosts.
Interestingly, the Cataractes team that will hit the ice will not look entirely similar to the one that opened the season back in September. The busiest team at the QMJHL trade deadline, Shawinigan loaded up on top-end talent and have assembled perhaps the deepest roster in the entire league. Their newest additions include Maple Leafs draft pick and World Juniors standout Dmytro Timashov, starting netminder Philippe Cadorette, and high-scoring overager Danny Moynihan.
The Sherbrooke Phoenix, meanwhile, are a team that is probably a little disappointed with the season they've had, given some of the names on their roster. Undrafted 20-year-old Guillaume Gauthier led the team in scoring with 86 points, though for Habs fans all eyes will be on Daniel Audette: the Canadiens fifth-round selection in 2014.
Audette saw a bit of a regression in his production this year, though still finished with an impressive 59 points in 52 games. Unfortunately, the Phoenix may be without their top defenceman, as San Jose's second-round pick, Jeremy Roy was shut down for at least the remainder of the regular season earlier this month.
Ultimately, the Phoenix do not have the firepower to match the Cataractes, and are unlikely to give the East Division champions much trouble in the first round. Still, Sherbrooke is not without its share of quality players and could surprise by taking some games from the number-two seed.
Regular season series: Shawinigan wins 4-1
The Saint John Sea Dogs emerged as the winners of the Maritimes Division, which was probably the most evenly matched division in the league this season. The Sea Dogs have a well-rounded team with quality depth at every position, making them an interesting team to watch this post-season.
At forward, the team is led by Tampa Bay Lightning fourth-round pick Mathieu Joseph and undrafted 19-year-old Matthew Highmore. Newfoundland-native Nathan Noel also calls the team home; a player many were surprised to see go undrafted in 2015.
The most prolific player on the Sea Dogs entire roster, however, is undoubtedly Joe Veleno. Veleno was granted exceptional status by Hockey Canada this season, becoming the first player to enter the QMJHL as a 15-year-old. Veleno did not disappoint in his rookie junior season, putting up 43 points in 62 games.
The biggest strength of the Sea Dogs, however, is on their blue line. With a number of talented defencemen, you would be hard-pressed to find a better defensive corps in the league. Thomas Chabot and Jakub Zboril are both former NHL first-round picks, while Luke Green is a highly-touted prospect eligible for the upcoming draft.
The Titan should be heavily outmatched in this series, icing a young roster devoid of top-end talent. Bathurst is a team looking toward the future, with 16-year-old Antoine Morand exciting fans after a very impressive 50-point rookie season. Defenceman Guillaume Brisebois is the lone NHL draft pick on the Titan roster, which has relied on 19-year-old Christophe Boivin to do much of the offensive heavy lifting this season.
Bathurst lacks the depth necessary to keep up with the Sea Dogs, though they do have the advantage of facing a team who has not been at the top of their game lately, as Saint John enters the series on a three-game losing streak. The Titan managed three wins in their nine-game season series with the Sea Dogs.
Nearly as dominant as the Huskies this season were the Val d'Or Foreurs, who would have been the second seed in these playoffs if not for divisional leaders taking priority. With the second-highest-scoring offence in the QMJHL this season, the Foreurs are a team that should be expected to make it deep into these playoffs.
The Foreurs' roster is made up of a number of prolific scorers, with no fewer than four forwards hitting the 30-goal mark this season. Undrafted overager Anthony Beauregard was the team's leading scorer, but Val d'Or is also home to a few players we can expect to see in the pros sooner or later. Philadelphia Flyers 48th-overall pick Nicolas Aube-Kubel scored 38 goals for the Foreurs this season, outdone only by projected first-rounder in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, Julien Gauthier, who was also a member of the Canadian World Junior team this year.
Blainville-Boisbriand, on the other hand, is a team that will rely entirely on defensive play if they are to advance to round two. Only the Baie-Comeau Drakkar (who had 14 wins all season) scored fewer goals than the Armada, whose leading scorer, Kristian Pospisil, recorded just 40 points.
Florida Panthers prospect Samuel Montembeault is undoubtedly the team's best player. The third-string netminder of Canada's World Junior team is the only member of the Armada with links to an NHL franchise. The fifth-best goals against average in the Q is just about all the Armada have going for them.
Having dominated Blainville-Boisbriand for the majority of the season, going 5-1 on the campaign, the high-flying Foreurs should have a fairly easy time getting out of the first-round.
This is a series that might have been more interesting prior to the trade deadline, which saw the Remparts actively selling players to contending teams. Massimo Carozza, Nikolas Brouillard, Matt Murphy, and Dmytro Timashov were all traded out of Québec to new homes, and that will certainly hamper their ability to test the superior Olympiques in the first round.
Gatineau is a team built around 17-year-old draft-eligible winger Vitalii Abramov, who has dominated the competition in his first season in North America with 93 points in 63 games. Ranked 27th by International Scouting Services, Abramov may be too much for the Remparts to handle. The Olympiques also bolstered their lineup with a few mid-season additions, including a pair of NHL second-round picks in Nicolas Meloche (Colorado) and Gabryel Paquin-Boudreau (San Jose).
The Remparts, who are typically one of the most competitive teams in the league, are looking to undergo a quick rebuild and won't expect to advance in the playoffs. Making matters worse is the eight-game losing streak that the team ended the season with, which can't be having a positive effect on their confidence.
Québec has actually gotten the better of the Olympiques, winning three of the four games they've played against each other this season, though with their roster depleted as a result of the trades made at the deadline, it's unlikely their early-season successes will carry over into the playoffs.
The Moncton Wildcats are led by a pair of Boston-natives in Conor Garland and Cameron Askew. Garland has led the entire league in scoring for the past two seasons, putting up 129 points in 2014-15 and 128 this year. The Arizona Coyotes fifth-round pick is a dangerous offensive weapon for the Wildcats and one that may prove difficult to shut down in the post-season. The Wildcats notably added Buffalo Sabres prospect Vaclac Karabacek to the fold at the trade deadline, adding to their offensive depth.
The downfall for the Wildcats may be their goaltending, as they have been unable to find a consistently reliable starter despite testing four netminders in the crease at various times through the year. Keven Bouchard and Blade Mann-Dixon have had the majority share of the net, though both have struggled and may be exposed in a series format.
Victoriaville will undoubtedly be a very dangerous team in seasons to come, and although this may not be the season they've been building towards, they have the talent to pull off an upset in the first round. Draft-eligible Pascal Laberge led the team in the regular season with 68 points in 56 games played. More impressive, perhaps, was the performance of 16-year-old centre Maxime Comtois, who recorded 60 points on the year.
Although they will need to find a way to deal with Garland's offensive prowess in this series, the Tigres have the ability to make this one of the more competitive matchups.
Regular season series: Tie, 1-1
One of the top teams in the league since Christmas, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles pose a real threat in these playoffs. While they have had some issues with their defensive play and in goal, the Eagles attack is made up of a number of dynamic forwards, giving them one of the most lethal offences in the Q. Led by projected top-five draft pick Pierre-Luc Dubois, and 2015 Detroit Red Wings first-round pick Evgeny Svechnikov, it should come as no surprise Cape Breton had the third-highest goal total of any team this season.
The Chicoutimi Saguenéens will be no easy test for Cape Breton, however. With only six teams allowing fewer goals, the Sags will need to frustrate the Eagles' offence if they are to have a chance in this series. Partly responsible for that task will be Julio Billia, the Sags' overage goaltender who is having a career year with a QMJHL-best .919 save percentage.
Something that may have an impact on the first game of the series, at least, is the absence of Dubois. The Eagles leading scorer was suspended on the weekend for an illegal hit from behind on Sea Dogs defenceman Luke Green. Originally suspended "until further notice," the league announced Dubois' sentence would be two games: the final game of the regular season, and the first game of the post-season.
This one is sure to be an intense series; not just for the teams, but for the fans as well. Cape Breton fans will still be sour towards Sags forward Nicolas Roy, who infamously refused to report to the Screaming Eagles after they selected him first overall in 2013. Roy represents the Sags' best scoring threat, and the one player who could help them outscore the Eagles, as he finished the season as the league's leading goal-scorer, with 48.
The Eagles received a package of picks in return for the Amos-native, along with the fifth-overall pick in 2014 as league compensation for the player not reporting; a pick that the franchise used to bring in Dubois. No doubt this will add some fuel to the fire in this series, giving it the potential of being a very interesting one to watch.
Regular season series: Tie, 1-1
In what should be a hard-fought series, the Islanders and Océanic go head-to-head as two very evenly matched teams. Rimouski claimed home-ice advantage in this one — but just barely, as they finished just two points above Charlottetown in the standings.
This is another series that Canadiens fans will want to keep a close eye on. Simon Bourque, the Habs sixth-round selection in last year's NHL Entry Draft, serves as captain for the Océanic, and had a terrific year, contributing 46 points; good for fifth on the team. Rimouski is a team that will hope to have a solid post-season performance to build on next year, as they should be able to bring the majority of their top players back to the team for a run at the league title.
Rimouski's overage goaltender Louis-Philip Guindon will be tasked with stopping a high-powered Islanders offence that got a lot stronger in the second half of the season. Daniel Sprong was returned to the Islanders by the Pittsburgh Penguins just before the new year, and the Islanders decided to load up around him and make a run for the playoffs.
Charlottetown, who already had Ottawa Senators second-round pick Filip Chlapik on their roster, brought in former Victoriaville Tigre Samuel Blais to round out their offence, giving them a balanced attack that could cause problems for the Océanic.
This series could go either way, with the potential to go the distance, making it one of the most entertaining matchups to keep an eye on in the first round.
Regular season series: Tie, 1-1
Logos used in the article obtained from SportsLogos.net.