Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Around the League(s): Memorial Cup Preview

Beginning this Friday in Shawinigan, four Montreal Canadiens prospects get to play a little bonus hockey, competing in the country's most prestigious national tournament: The Memorial Cup.  For those new to the event, the Memorial Cup is the final CHL championship; an event pitting the winners of each of Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League, and Western Hockey League against one another, with a fourth competitor being the team selected as host for the event.

This year's teams are the WHL champion Edmonton Oil Kings, OHL winner London Knights, back-to-back QMJHL champion Saint John Sea Dogs, and host Shawinigan Cataractes, who were upset in the second round of the QMJHL playoffs, and have thus had a long break between their last game and the start of the Cup.  With four players in the event, the Canadiens have more already-drafted participants than any other NHL teams, and have Nathan Beaulieu as a returnee from last year's Memorial Cup, where he won the title with Saint John.  Here's a look at the four clubs, and what to watch for from a Habs perspective if you catch any of the games live, or on Sportsnet / TVASports.

Saint John Sea Dogs

Winning back-to-back Memorial Cups is a difficult and rare accomplishment, and yet the Windsor Spitfires did it in 2009 and 2010, and now Saint John has the opportunity to win two straight directly thereafter.  A big part of last year's winning core is back, including Montreal's Nathan Beaulieu on defense, and future Florida Panthers star Jonathan Huberdeau up front.  Other names you should know up front include Charlie Coyle, a top prospect drafted by San Jose in the first round but dealt to Minnesota in last summer's Brent Burns trade, and Zack Phillips, a Minnesota first round choice from last June.  Stanislav Galiev - a 3rd round pick of the Washington Capitals in 2010 - was limited to just 20 regular season games this year, but exploded for 16 goals and 34 points in 17 playoff games.  The Sea Dogs are a veteran team with no top prospects for the upcoming entry draft, but just finished off a dominant playoff drive to the Q championship with a 16-1 record.  Though his French is questionable at best, the team's head coach Gerard Gallant has been speculated as a possible candidate for a job in Montreal.

London Knights

The Knights are captained by towering Habs' prospect d-man Jarred Tinordi who took his game to another level this season, particularly in the playoffs where his dormant offensive instincts awoke, producing 3 goals and 8 points in 19 games en route to the OHL crown against a tough Niagara Ice Dogs squad.  Tinordi and his partner, 2011 Pittsburgh second rounder Scott Harrington, form one of the CHL's most formidable shutdown pairs, while the Knights get offense from the back end in the explosive Olli Maatta, a 2012 draft eligible 6'2" blueliner who scored 23 points in 19 playoff games.  2010 Nashville first rounder Austin Watson is a 6'3" power forward who collected OHL playoff MVP honours thanks to his 10 goals, though it was undrafted 19-year old forward Seth Griffith who led the club (tied with Maatta) with 23 points in 19 games.  Another big contributor up front is 2011 Tampa Bay Lightning first round choice Vladislav Namestnikov, while Toronto 2010 third rounder Greg McKegg had a great regular season but his production dipped come post-season.  Scouts will be keeping an eye on center Andreas Athanasiou, a 6'0", 175 lbs 17-year old likely to go in one of the first two rounds next month.  Another player who may go in June but isn't on many draft lists is goaltender Michael Houser, an undrafted 19-year old who was named the OHL's most outstanding player this season.  The Knights don't have the firepower of the Sea Dogs, but they are sound defensively with a top notch keeper.

Edmonton Oil Kings

The Oil Kings are the only one of the four clubs without a Canadiens prospect on their roster.  On paper, they lack the established star power of the other three participating teams.  17-year old 2013 draft eligible Curtis Lazar scored 31 points in 63 regular season games this year, but the 6'0" centreman led his club with 19 points in 20 playoff games.  Tied with Lazar was the team leader from the season, Michael St. Croix, a 5'11" fourth round pick of the New York Rangers one year ago, who put up 105 points this year.  Perhaps most intriguing about the Oil Kings is the presence of several top-rated prospects for the upcoming draft, a group led by defenseman Griffin Reinhart.  Reinhart has a huge 6'4", 202 lbs frame, but is more of a two-way guy than a bruiser, and most scouts see him as a top 10 candidate.  Swedish import Henrik Samuelsson started the year in the Swedish Elite League, but made it in Edmonton in time to score 23 point in 28 games.  The 6'2" right winger is also an alumni of the U.S. National Team Development Program, so he is well traveled, and seen as an intelligent player with some questions on his skating but expected to be taken in round 2. Lastly, a second  defenseman on the prospect radar is Cody Corbett, just a little smaller than Reinhart at 6'1", 210 lbs, but plays more of a tough defensive game, and is projected to likely go in rounds 2 to 4.

Shawinigan Cataractes

The host Cataractes loaded up in anticipation of this tournament, but it didn't help them get past Chicoutimi in the second round of the Q's post-season, falling in a 7-game tilt.  The team is captained by Montreal prospect Michael Bournival, who had an up-and-down season that saw him set a career high with 30 goals, while totaling 56 points in just 41 games.  His playoffs, however, were disappointing, with just 7 points in 11 matches.  Hopefully the month off the team has had allowed him to refocus and heal up any possible bruises.  Acquired prior to the trade deadline, fellow future Hab Morgan Ellis has been a revelation on the team's blueline, often paired with Phoenix Coyotes first rounder Brandon Gormley.  The 6'2" Ellis was tied for third in team scoring in the post-season with 11 points in 11 games, while also leading the Cataractes with a +14 rating.  Enigmatic New York Islanders third rounder Kirill Kabanov led the team in playoff scoring with 13 points, just ahead of Philadelphia third round choice Michael Chaput.  A wildcard for the upcoming draft, 19-year old 5'11" forward Anton Zlobin led the team in the regular season, while most expect 6'1" blueliner Justin Hache to be a top 100 choice this June.  Seventeen year old netminder Alex Dubeau has already received an invitation to Montreal's pre-draft combine, indicating the club will be watching his performance as well.

The tournament opens this Friday night with a game between Edmonton and Shawinigan.  For full schedule and all the details, check the event's official website here:

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