TRAVERSE CITY, MICH. — The favorite to take Canada's starting job at the World Junior Championship? Right now, its nobody. And while the tournament isn't top of mind right now, Chicago Blackhawks prospect Alexis Gravel is doing everything in his power to make himself stand out ahead of the world junior crease competition.
"He never lets a bad goal bother him," a QMJHL scout said. "He's got a pro mindset. It seems like the harder the competition, the better he plays."
Case in point: the 2019 Memorial Cup. Gravel's club, the Halifax Mooseheads, were overcome by a strong Rouyn-Noranda Huskies squad in the QMJHL final, but the Mooseheads were guaranteed a spot in the tournament as hosts and Gravel was a star at the competition. Not only did he help guide the Mooseheads to the final, where they again lost to Rouyn-Noranda, Gravel was named to the tournament all-star team and won the Hap Emms Memorial Trophy as the Memorial Cup's top goaltender. And he kept shining on big stages this summer, including a fantastic showing World Junior Summer Showcase in early August, which was followed a head-standing performance at the Traverse City Prospect Tournament earlier this week. Gravel was a game changer in both games he played, bailing out his injury-ravaged team in the latter stages of the tournament and finishing as one of the tournament's top goaltenders.
“He’s got some confidence. He’s just poised in the net. There’s no panic," Rockford IceHogs coach Derek King said of Gravel's play in Traverse City. "There were a couple of shots (that were) definitely screened, where you think it’s going in, and he was just square to the puck. It hits him and the rebound comes, and he swipes it away.”
That confidence and poise complements Gravel's other gifts, too. Standing 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds, Gravel has added bulk and strength throughout his junior career and only gotten better as time has passed. "I feel like I'm faster. I'm a little bit leaner. My puck tracking is better in general," Gravel said. "I grew a lot last year...I'm happy with the way I'm practicing right now."
But for as good as Gravel has been, and as close as the Mooseheads came last season, he has yet to be an impact player on a championship team. But that shot might come this season, not only with Halifax, who are set to contend again, but also the Canadian world junior team.
Gravel has represented Canada at the U-18 level twice, but his only time as a starter came at the Youth Olympic Games in 2016, where he won silver. As it stands, Gravel isn't the favorite heading into the winter's top U-20 event, but his history of strong tournament performances is intriguing. Given Colten Ellis, who struggled in limited action at the World Junior Summer Showcase, also had a tough outing to end the tournament in Traverse City, Gravel's top competition could now be Olivier Rodrigue, who was fantastic for the Edmonton Oilers against the Calgary Flames' rookie team earlier this week.
"Obviously, the world juniors have to be a goal. I haven't thought much about that going into the season, but it's part of my long-term goals," Gravel said, adding that his other goal is to earn some jewellery. "I want to win the President's Cup and the Memorial Cup. We were close last year. We still have a good team in Halifax, and I want to go pro and have two rings on my hand."
About next year: Gravel will turn pro in 2020-21 and the crease situation is somewhat crowded in Chicago. Robin Lehner has potential The Guy in Chicago for the foreseeable future. Kevin Lankinen is deserving of AHL time after an incredible World Championship performance for Finland. And Collin Delia is in the system until 2022, which furthers the logjam. Fortunately, the Hawks have time with Gravel, especially if Lehner can hold down the top job for another four seasons or so.
But there's no rush. Gravel is focused on the season ahead and building on his momentum. He's one of the favorites for the QMJHL top goaltender award and the team in front of him make will make life easier. And while he won't admit it now, it's hard to imagine Gravel won't make a push to represent Canada, which would give him the opportunity to add a gold medal to his mantle before chasing the two rings he so desires.
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