Four teams will be in contention when the Memorial Cup, emblematic of junior hockey supremacy, gets underway tonight in Brandon, Manitoba. But this tournament belongs to the Windsor Spitfires, win or lose.
The Spitfires, who in 2009 became the first team ever to lose the first two games before winning the Cup, are looking to become the first to repeat since the 1995 Kamloops Blazers, a legendary club that featured Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan and Darcy Tucker, among others.
Fifteen years from now, this Spits roster could look just as loaded. Their lineup features 10 players who have already been drafted into the NHL, including first rounders Ryan Ellis (Predators, 11th overall last year), Zack Kassian (Sabres, 13th) and Greg Nemisz (Flames, 25th in 2008), and four more expected to go early this June. But even surrounded by that talent, all eyes will be on left wing Taylor Hall, the MVP of last year's tournament and a player who will go to Edmonton or Boston with one of the first two picks this summer.
"He's a special player," a scout told SI.com. "He's a faster Iginla. He's capable of winning this thing all by himself...as long as he doesn't try to win it all by himself."
While Hall, who led the OHL in scoring and has guided the Spits to a pair of OHL titles, will be the center of attention, he's just one of nearly 40 members of the Spits, Moncton Wildcats, Calgary Hitmen and host Brandon Wheat Kings who are either NHL draftees or expected to be taken in the first three rounds this June.
Here are the 12 players most worth watching (the tournament will be carried on the NHL Network).
Cam Fowler, Windsor: The stylish defender probably has more at stake individually than any other player in Brandon. Regarded as the third-best prospect for much of this season, his stock took a hit in the final rankings as repeated viewings led scouts to focus on his flaws. "Skates and passes like an NHLer," offered more than one birddog. "Hits and shoots like a pee-wee." It's a cute assessment, but a little unfair. Fowler will never be Scott Stevens, but he has a willingness to be more physical and he'll want to show it on the big stage. The question is: can he bring that element without detracting from the skill game that makes him valuable to the Spits?
Ryan Ellis, Windsor: Ellis is the Nick Lidstrom of the Spitfires. The Predators will settle for him maturing into the next Brian Rafalski when he goes pro. Short but fire hydrant-sturdy, transition skills make Ellis the key to Windsor's up-tempo game. He's capable of taking a beating, so he won't be overwhelmed by physical play. His patience, puck skills and experience set him up to be an impact player in the tournament.
Adam Henrique, Windsor: Don't write him off as a junior version of Warren Young. Sure, his amazing postseason production (20 goals in just 19 games) has been inflated by playing alongside Hall, but Henrique's two-way game made him a perfect choice for the Devils (third round, 2008). "It's not just winning draws with him, it's winning all the big ones," one scout said. "There's so much compete in this kid. He might get beat but he won't get outworked. He might be the best penalty-killing forward in juniors." Robbed of the Memorial Cup MVP nod last year, he's the favorite to win it this time around.
Martin Jones, Calgary: Do his eye-popping stats paint a picture of the best junior-aged goalie in Canada or the beneficiary of playing behind such a powerhouse squad? Scouts lean toward the latter, which should motivate the MVP of the WHL to prove them wrong. Blessed with size (6-4, 193), incredibly quick feet and a strong competitive streak, he gives the Hitmen a clear advantage at the tournament's most important position. The 20-year-old signed as an undrafted free agent with the Kings after impressing during an invite to camp in 2008. He'll likely back up Jeff Zatkoff in Manchester next fall.
Brandon Kozun, Calgary: Watching a guy like Mike Cammalleri leading the NHL in playoff goal-scoring should serve as a reminder why you should never count out a kid like Kozun. He might be just 5-9, 164 pounds, but the mighty mite led the WHL in assists (75) and points (107) and was a member of Team Canada at the World Juniors (despite being born and raised in California until the age of 10). A sixth round pick of the Kings (179th overall) in 2009, he's impressed GM Dean Lombardi with his off-the-charts offensive instincts as well as his grit. "He plays with the right kind of chip on his shoulder." Kozun was injured in the WHL final and hasn't skated since, but he says he'll be ready to go this weekend.
Michael Stone, Calgary: A third-round pick of the Coyotes in 2008, Stone used his size (6-3, 205), composure with the puck, and mobility to earn recognition as one of the top defenders in the WHL. He has the puck confidence and heavy shot to be a difference maker on the power play.
Brayden Schenn, Brandon: The Kings snapped him up fifth overall last June --much to the dismay of Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke -- and have watched Schenn go through an explosive developmental curve. Labeled by one scout as a cross between Mike Richards and Pat Verbeek, the younger brother of Toronto blueliner Luke Schenn is a tenacious, physical center who will dominate with his strength. He's a load to handle down low where his quick release makes him especially dangerous, but he's just as adept on the penalty kill. Outside of Hall, he's the favorite to emerge as tournament MVP.
Scott Glennie, Brandon: The eighth overall pick in 2009 (Dallas), Glennie is an old-school sniper. He has tremendous speed down the wing -- there won't be many faster than him at the tournament -- and he does his best work off the rush. Doesn't have the two-way game of Schenn, but he is so skilled and fearless in the offensive zone that he always finds a way to make an impression.
Travis Hamonic, Brandon: Arguably Canada's best defender at the 2010 World Juniors, Hamonic will counted on to play the shutdown role for the host team. "He's miserable to play against," a scout said of the Islanders' prospect. "He's big, he's strong, he's smart. If you get some space around him, you've had to earn it."
Gabriel Bourque, Moncton: Another 2009 pick of the Preds, Bourque will draw the heavy checking in Brandon after leading the Q with 19 playoff goals. He's small (just 5-9), but he's a fierce competitor. If he doesn't catch your eye with his finishing touch, you'll notice him blocking shots or playing the body. "He's a clutch player," one scout revealed. "He's at his best in the big games. He has a way of carrying his teammates when things get rough."
Nicolas Deschamps, Moncton: Picked up at the trade deadline, he tied for the QMJHL scoring lead with 39 goals and 96 points on the season. But will we get to see him in action? The Anaheim prospect (35th overall, 2008) suffered a lower body injury on April 23 and hasn't returned to action since. He's picked up the pace of off-ice workouts, but he hasn't yet put on the skates. He might not dress this weekend, but don't rule out a miraculous recovery next week.
Brandon Gormley, Moncton: The draft-eligible defender is considered a top-five pick by several teams and could conceivably be selected before Fowler. He's a solid, two-way who is strong on the puck, makes a good first pass out of the zone and reads the play as well as anyone. "He's a great prospect," said one scout. "You never have to worry when he's out there. He does everything well."