CHL Notebook: Olympiques appear closer to dealing Vitalii Abramov

Vitalii Abramov a speedster off the wing who seems to have an innate sense of where the puck is headed. (Photo courtesy surlevif.net)

Vitalii Abramov will play for Team Russia in the CIBC Canada Russia Series this week, and could have another new jersey soon enough.

There seems to be little interest in QMJHL circles in tamping down rumours that Abramov (CBJ), the reigning league scoring champion, is not long for the Gatineau Olympiques. The working assumption from the minute that Abramov was assigned to junior was that Olympiques hockey operations director Alain Sear was not going to sit on an asset, especially in the seller’s market where only import and 20-year-old roster players can be traded before mid-December.

Abramov, who has 25 points in 16 games, is living up to his billing. Gatineau (.550 point pct., 10th in the 18-team QMJHL) is not exactly lighting the junior hockey world on fire, but it’s not looking like it should toss its cards into the middle of the table either. Any team fixing to make Sear an offer he cannot refuse would, logically thinking, do so soon in order to give Abramov a few weeks to ease into his new hockey habitat, lest he be plucked away to play for Russia in the world junior championship.

One underachiever that desperately needs an injection of scoring punch is the Victoriaville Tigres (.475 point pct., 14th overall). Victoriaville, which prospect-stats.com ranks 17th in PDO, likely needs to try some sort of shake-up to effect change before it’s too late.

The other big variable in the Q’s trade market involves a scenario where the Shawinigan Cataractes get 19-year-old defenceman Samuel Girard back from the Colorado Avalanche. Girard, one of the moving parts in the Matt Duchene/Kyle Turris transaction, averaged more than 22 minutes in two games last weekend with Colorado, who can use him in two more NHL games before committing to use the first season of his rookie contract. The Cataractes (.357 point pct.) are barely in a playoff position, so if Girard falls in their laps he’d surely end up in the situation of getting traded in two leagues in the same season.

Merkley tightens up game

The Guelph Storm’s Ryan Merkley, who bears the albatross that is the label of polarizing playmaking defenceman in the NHL draft class of 2018, faces a litmus test across the next three weeks. The improving Storm (.579 point pct., sixth in the OHL Western Conference) play their next eight games against either higher-placed teams or reloading powerhouses such as the Erie Otters or London Knights.

No span of games ever makes or breaks anyone’s draft stock, but it will be a good measuring stick for how the 17-year-old Merkley, a potential NHL first-round choice, has taken to playing a more patient, pick-your-spots game on a Storm team coached by George Burnett. Finding the sweet spot between creativity and supporting teammates was part of the learning curve that P.K. Subban had in Belleville from 2005 to 2009 when Burnett was his coach there, so it will be interesting to watch how Merkley makes the progression.

Merkley, a Mississauga native, is on an eight-game point streak and is second in defenceman scoring in the OHL behind Owen Sound’s Sean Durzi. With 24 points over 19 games, Merkley is also the only OHL defenceman who’s leading his team in scoring.

Kamloops, Victoria eye 2020 Cup

The eroding difference at the box office between junior hockey’s two tent-pole events could be illustrated in the next MasterCard Memorial Cup bid cycle. The world junior championship has long since moved up to the big time, leaving a select few junior hockey to vie for hosting the Memorial Cup. That still left something to serve markets with two distinct price points.

So it was interesting last week that Victoria Royals GM Cam Hope, signalling the WHL team’s intentions to bid for the 2020 Memorial Cup, told the hometown Times-Colonist about a “natural cross-over” with the 2019 world junior, which Victoria is also hosting. There likely would be some synergy and Victoria is right to tout it. Point being, though, prioritizing the audience that the world junior pursues, over the perhaps more budget-conscious core CHL fans, takes the Memorial Cup farther and farther from its roots.

The Kamloops Blazers became the first WHL team to express interest in bidding for 2020, stating their intentions on Nov. 9. The Blazers’ pitch centres on the fact 2020 coincides with the 25th anniversary of their last title in 1995. Kamloops, which is in rebuilding mode this season, is also on a realistic timeline for being competitive in two seasons’ time, although that’s also feasible for Victoria.

In any event, back-to-back Memorial Cup tournaments with an ocean view could happen. The Moncton Wildcats, Halifax Mooseheads and Saint John Sea Dogs are bidding to host in 2019.

Canadian NHL team prospect of the week: Jordy Stallard, C, Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)

Stallard is becoming the classic “young overage,” the late-birthday pick who needs the benefit of playing his 20-year-old season in major junior. The Winnipeg Jets fifth-rounder (No. 127 overall in 2016) has 11 goals and 20 points during his current 11-game point streak and is up to fifth in WHL scoring. Stallard has long shown soft hands and exceptional speed, but at a wiry 6-foot-2½ and 179 pounds, is a bit of a later bloomer physically who needs the extra time.

Oddly enough, Stallard was on a four-game goal streak on Jan. 22 when he suffered a shoulder injury during a game against his old team, the Calgary Hitmen, that required season-ending surgery. He’s basically picked it back up from that point.

New name to know: Luke Cavallin, G, Flint Firebirds (OHL)

Chances to shout out a 16-year-old goalie who caddies for an overage can be far and few between. Cavallin shone in his star turn as a linchpin for silver medal-earning Canada Red at the World Under-17 Challenge last week, achieving tournament all-star recognition after finishing first in minutes played and saves, with a .904 save percentage.

Cavallin, of Greely, Ont., was the first goalie chosen in the OHL priority selection draft in April. While this is likely a learning year for the six-foot-one netminder as an understudy behind 20-year-old Garrett Forrest in Flint, the U17s showed Cavallin’s potential.