2019 Memorial Cup Preview: The insiders tell all

The major junior classic kicks off in Halifax on Friday, where the host Mooseheads will duke it out with Guelph, Prince Albert and Rouyn-Noranda. How do these teams stack up? We went to their CHL rivals to get the scoop on their strengths and weaknesses.
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The 2019 Memorial Cup begins Friday in Halifax and it’s a pretty fun field this year. The host Mooseheads are trying to win their first title since Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin led the squad to glory in 2013, while QMJHL champion Rouyn-Noranda is looking for its first Cup ever. The last time a Guelph team took it all was back in 1986 when the Platers reigned victorious and the year before that was Prince Albert’s one and only championship.

So how will this year’s tournament shake out? In a tournament where when you win is often more important than how often you win, it’s always tough to handicap. But to get a sense of the field, I interviewed a front office exec from rival teams in all three junior leagues to get the inside scoop on the four participants. If I was a betting man, I’d take Prince Albert over Rouyn-Noranda in the final – but I also wouldn’t count out any permutation of these four squads. Here’s how they stack up:

Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL (host)

The hosts made it to the QMJHL final before falling to Rouyn-Noranda, so they earned their spot in the final four. Interestingly enough, the Mooseheads did not make any splashy trades at the deadline this season, something that has usually been a constant for Memorial Cup host teams. Instead, they got most of their work done early in the summer and fall. Anaheim Ducks prospect Antoine Morand, overager Samuel Asselin and Edmonton Oilers prospect Ostap Safin were the main acquisitions, though Safin really struggled in the QMJHL playoffs.

In net, Halifax entrusted the keys to Chicago Blackhawks prospect Alexis Gravel, who rewarded them with a great regular season and a decent, but not spectacular playoff run.

“Their goalie was a question mark coming into the playoffs, as he didn’t have a lot of post-season experience,” said the QMJHL exec. “But their defense corps is very offensively-driven, so Gravel has to be sharp.”

That defense is led by Detroit Red Wings pick Jared McIsaac, with Jocktan Chainey (NJ) and Jake Ryczek (CHI) also having NHL prospect status. Justin Barron is one to watch for the 2020 draft.

Up front, it’s been all about 2019 draft prospect Raphael Lavoie in the playoffs. He led the team with 32 points in 23 games after a regular season wracked by inconsistency. Seems like a little tough love from his coach made a big impact.

“Eric Veilleux made it tough on him, switching lines and putting him in different roles,” said the insider. “But it worked and Lavoie is scoring the big goals for them in the playoffs. Sometimes those skill players need to be pushed.”

The Mooseheads couldn’t keep up with Rouyn-Noranda in the QMJHL final, getting outscored 25-17 in six games, but they did come through a couple times. Will home-ice advantage propel them to another Memorial Cup title?

“They have skill and Lavoie has been hot for them,” said the insider. “But they lack a bit of depth for a Memorial Cup host, in my opinion.”

Guelph Storm, OHL

It’s been an absolutely wild ride for the Storm. They were down 3-0 to London in the second round of the OHL playoffs before forcing a Game 7. They went down 3-1 in that game before winning 6-3. Then they dug 2-0 holes against Saginaw and Ottawa before coming back to win both of those series (and in the process handing the 67’s their first losses of the entire post-season). So they weren’t the favorites, but now they’re looking unbreakable. And it all started back in January with a mega-deal.

“The biggest factor was (GM/coach) George Burnett making that Nick Suzuki (MTL) trade, that also brought in Sean Durzi (LA),” said the OHL exec. “Both came in and did very well. There was no answer for Suzuki in the playoffs, no matter what you tried to do. And he always dominated possession. He and Isaac Ratcliffe (PHI) grew up together, so there was instant chemistry there. That was the difference.”

Along with Chicago Blackhawks prospect MacKenzie Entwistle, Suzuki and Ratcliffe were a force in all three zones, with Suzuki breaking the franchise playoff scoring record of 35, netting 42 points in 24 games. The Storm also has a star on the back end in Edmonton Oilers pick Dmitri Samorukov, along with NHL draft picks Durzi (LA), Markus Phillips (LA) and Fedor Gordeev (TOR).

“Samorukov has been excellent,” said the insider. “He is incredibly hard to play against on defense, and he brings some offense. Anytime their backs were against the wall and were about to get eliminated, I would look at the scoresheet and he would have a goal and two assists, or one-and-one. His game rises when things get hard. He’s the anchor on that ‘D’ corps and they’ve got a lot of experience back there.”

But goaltending will be crucial. Starter Anthony Popovich has OK size, but he hasn’t had to steal games.

“That’s the one thing that can hurt them in the Memorial Cup,” said the insider. “Popovich has had good games and bad games. He can be beat glove-side. That’s their wild card.”

The Storm’s penchant for falling behind early in the post-season won’t wash at the Memorial Cup, either.

“Will they come out ready, or a little sleepy?” said the insider. “It’s a whole different animal out there – you have to win one to get into the playoff round and then it’s one-and-done.”

Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, QMJHL

The Huskies lost only four games total en route to the QMJHL championship – two in the first round against Shawinigan and two in the final round against Halifax. Otherwise, they’ve been a juggernaut. “They are a very well-balanced team,” said the QMJHL exec.

“Two good goalies, a solid ‘D’ corps led by Noah Dobson (NYI) and an offense that doesn’t have big NHL names – though Joel Teasdale (MTL) has been really good – but they are experienced. Some of them are still around from the final three years ago. They play the game the right way.”

Indeed, the Huskies won the ‘Q’ in 2016 and that was the start of Peter Abbandonato’s career – now he’s an overager piling up points. Teasdale led this year’s post-season in scoring with 34 points and he’s another forward to watch on the team, but the real star power is on the back end with one particular Islanders prospect.

“Dobson is pretty good at everything,” said the insider. “He’s one of the most dangerous players in the CHL when he has the puck on his stick. And he’s always on the ice. I don’t know what his ice time is, but it’s a lot. He’s an incredible player.”

Samuel Harvey has been excellent in net for the Huskies and if he should falter for any reason, the squad has San Jose Sharks pick Zachary Emond to fill the void – that’s a great luxury.

If there’s one fly in the ointment for Rouyn-Noranda, it’s the absence of veteran defenseman Jacob Neveu, who broke his jaw while blocking a shot in the QMJHL final.

“I don’t know if he’ll be back,” said the insider. “He’s very efficient and gets those little details right on the ice.”

Prince Albert Raiders, WHL

The Raiders come in with an older, bigger lineup, repping the ‘Dub’ in a very traditional way.

“They have a big, veteran ‘D’ that play tough and take gaps away,” said the WHL exec. “Not the best puckmovers in the league, but nasty and hard to play against. Zach Hayes and Brayden Pachal are a very tough shutdown pair.”

Up front, Prince Albert has three lines that can hurt you offensively, headlined by San Jose prospect Noah Gregor and 2019 draft prospect Brett Leason. Gregor was a superstar in the WHL playoffs, with game-breaking speed and skill.

“Leason will try and shoot 8-10 times a game,” said the insider. “Usually up high. And he has a deadly backhand.”

In goal, the Raiders have the best netminder in the tournament in Toronto Maple Leafs pick Ian Scott. “He does have some off nights where he looks shaky, but when he’s on he’s almost unbeatable,” said the insider.

“He either gets a shutout or lets in one, or you can catch him on a night where he’s an .800 goalie. Not much middle ground and usually he’s closer to the shutout guy.”

If there’s a weakness to Prince Albert, it’s that they have been undisciplined with penalties – though their PK is very good – they are aggressive shorthanded and will try different looks to mess with the enemy’s power play. Team speed is just OK, though they can catch opponents off-guard and rush out for a breakaway.

“They want to control the ‘O’ zone and play big boy hockey,” said the insider. “But they have a few guys who can fly.”

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