CHL Notebook: MasterCard Memorial Cup ready for Team Canada reunion

Watch as Alexander True scores to help the Seattle Thunderbirds capture their first WHL title.

Mathew Barzal was selected as most valuable player after the Seattle Thunderbirds won the Western Hockey League championship on Sunday night, and it is tough to argue against recognizing such an offensive catalyst. Barzal (NYI) recorded a point in every one of his playoff games save for the clincher.

Like any team that wins four playoff series, the Thunderbirds had multiple candidates. Keegan Kolesar (CLB) expanded on his role as a two-way winger and shift disturber to finish as the playoff scoring leader with 31 points across 19 games, including the primary assist on Alexander True’s overtime winner. Defenceman Ethan Bear (EDM) did everything a No. 1 defenceman should do in late spring, all while playing with a badly injured left hand that kept him out of three games during the third round against Kelowna.

The rub is, though, all three are 19-year-olds. In terms of a when-will-this-happen-again playoff, the Thunderbirds’ Carl Stankowski might have rated the nod after becoming only the second goalie to backstop an entire WHL championship run while in his 16-year-old season.

Over four rounds, Stankowski affirmed why Seattle coach Steve Konowalchuk went to the franchise’s goalie of the future when overage workhorse Rylan Toth (who played 58 of 72 regular-season games) sustained a serious injury. On a team that often had the edge in puck possession, Stankowski ended up with a modest stat line for a goalie on a championship team, a 2.50 goals-against average and .911 save percentage, but made the saves that mattered, including a big one on Regina’s Nick Henry seconds before True’s winner. That contributed to the positive energy the Thunderbirds carried throughout the WHL post-season.

Prior to Sunday, Dan Blackburn of the 1999-2000 Kootenay Ice was the only other 16-year-old goalie who went the distance in the playoffs. Blackburn, at that time, was a future NHL first-round choice who had a full regular-season workload (51 games) to adapt to the WHL. Stankowski had all of seven games as a late-season call-up to acclimatize before getting an impromptu promotion.

It was an accomplished performance from someone who, under most circumstances, would just be at the learning stage.

Look away, Bruins fans

Sure, there’s the Team Canada reunion angle for the MasterCard Memorial Cup, since Barzal, the Erie Otters’ Dylan Strome (ARI) and Saint John Sea Dogs’ Thomas Chabot (OTT) have all led their teams to league titles after settling for silver at the world junior championship in January. There is also the angle of having two U.S.-based teams in the event for only the third time ever.

All that being said, given that a lot of NHL fans look in on the Memorial Cup to check out the possible future of their team, Boston Bruins fans might want to look the other way. The tournament could trigger memories of the 2015 NHL draft, when Bruins GM Don Sweeney maneuvered to have the Nos. 13, 14 and 15 picks in the first round — and the organization subsequently passed on selecting either Barzal or Chabot.

One of Chabot’s blue line mates in Saint John, Jakub Zboril, was one of those three Boston first-rounders, so there is that.

Speaking of Chabot, it’s not just the legacy the defenceman has left in Saint John, but there’s also what he bestowed to a fan named Legacy.

During the QMJHL final, a Sea Dogs fan named Adam Barton came to a game with a sign asking for one of Chabot’s sticks for his girlfriend, Jessica Legacy. Naturally, Chabot complied.

Hey, it never hurts to ask.

Old Dogs

For what it might be worth, Saint John will be the oldest team in the tournament, in terms of the size of their 19-year-old cohort. The Sea Dogs have 14 players with 1997 birthdates, including Chabot, Mathieu Joseph (TB) and Julien Gauthier (CAR) with Team Canada credentials. Throughout the course of the President Cup run, forwards Joe Veleno, Cédric Paré and Matt Green and backup goalie Alex D’Orio were the only players born in 1998 or later who suited up on a nightly basis. Veleno was tied for third on the Sea Dogs with eight goals in the playoffs.

Whether that collective maturity gives Saint John any lift is anyone’s guess, but winning the Memorial Cup does involve a high tolerance for boredom. The first few days go by in a blur, then teams find themselves with a lot of downtime.

Seattle has 11 players who are 19-year-olds, compared to 10 for Erie and nine on Windsor.

Knoblauch double-dips

Erie coach Kris Knoblauch joined a very select list when the Otters won the OHL title last Friday, becoming only the third head coach with championships in two of the three CHL leagues.

Knoblauch, of course, also steered the Kootenay Ice to the WHL championship as a rookie head coach in 2011. He parted ways with the Ice a year later, then migrated to the Otters in the fall of 2012-13, right as the team was beginning to harvest some of the homegrown talent that Erie, under present-day GM Dave Brown and director of scouting Scott Halpenny, had steadily acquired. The rest is history.

Orval Tessier (1972 Cornwall Royals, ’73 Quebec Remparts, ’81 Kitchener Rangers) and Ted Nolan (1991 and ’92 Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, 2006 Moncton Wildcats) also accomplished the feat. Each of those men presided over a Memorial Cup victory, which is seemingly the only box on the career resumé that Knoblauch has unchecked.

Pats in Next Year Country

The chance will come again for the Regina Pats, since they are the 2018 Memorial Cup hosts and all. As disappointing as the outcome was for Regina, the excitement sparked by this season was one of the selling points for naming the Pats the host for next season.

Coach and general manager John Paddock and assistant coach/assistant GM Dave Struch could have as many as seven sure graduates. Adam Brooks (TOR), Dawson Leedahl (NYR) and defenceman Chase Harrison have aged out. Four of Regina’s 19-year-olds — Filip Ahl (OTT) and Austin Wagner (LA) up front, Connor Hobbs (WSH) and Sergey Zborovskiy (NYR) on defence — are 2015 NHL draft picks who would be expected to make the step to minor pro.

That said, with reigning WHL player of the year Sam Steel (ANA) and defenceman Josh Mahura (ANA) due to return, Regina is starting with two very strong building blocks.

Canadian NHL team prospect of the week: Ethan Bear, D, Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL)

Playing hurt, Bear had eight points (1G-7A) in six games over the course of the WHL final. There is no telling how many memories the Edmonton Oilers signing created for family and friends on the Ochapowace First Nation, though.