SASKATOON, Sask. – The storylines from this year’s MasterCard Memorial Cup are some of the most intriguing from the junior season.
The host Saskatoon Blades have been trending ever since their disappointing and embarrassing sweep in the first round of the Western Hockey League playoffs. Last year, the host Shawinigan Cataractes won the tournament following their disappointing second-round exit in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs. Can the Blades follow in their footsteps?
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The London Knights return for a shot at redemption after losing to the Cataractes in overtime of last year’s final. Their large returning core of players is loaded with experience, but a troubling trend emerged in their run to the J. Ross Robertson Cup title as Ontario Hockey League champs: they had five third-period leads disintegrate through the final two rounds of the playoffs. Will they have a better killer instinct in Saskatoon?
Meanwhile, the Portland Winterhawks are in the tournament after exorcising their demons and winning their first Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL champions since 1998. They participated in the previous two league finals, but lost both times. They were slapped with some pretty huge sanctions earlier in the year which resulted in a fine, the removal of draft picks and the year-long suspension of head coach and GM Mike Johnston. Are these sanctions now proving to be their rallying cry?
The Halifax Mooseheads took home their first President's Cup title as QMJHL champions after a near perfect 16-1 playoff run. It was an emotional run in Halifax. Can they harness that same energy in this tournament?
And finally, the consensus top three prospects for the upcoming NHL draft will be suiting up in this tournament in Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin. There could be as many as seven or eight first-round picks in Saskatoon. Which of those players stands to raise his stock most?
All these questions answered by Sportsnet's Sam Cosentino and Patrick King.
Which NHL draft prospect will improve his draft stock most in this tournament?
King: If he wasn't already considered a first-round pick, Nicolas Petan will be once this tournament is over. The dynamic and diminutive pivot is as gifted a goal scorer as you'll find in the junior game, and even in this tournament with the likes of MacKinnon and Drouin. The timing may never be better considering the Calder-worthy season Brendan Gallagher enjoyed in Montreal this year. Petan doesn't crash the net with the reckless abandon of Gallagher, but shares many similarities beyond just their vitals. Petan shouldn't have much left to prove after his season and playoffs, but a strong showing against other notable draft eligibles could vault him higher than some might think.
Cosentino: While he doesn't have much room to move-up, London Knights centre Bo Horvat may work himself into the top 10 picks of the 2013 draft. Currently rated by NHL Central Scouting at #15, Horvat will see prime minutes as London's top centre. He's tough to match-up against, because of his two-way game. He wins face offs, he's learned to take his game to the front of the net. He has a good frame, excellent hands and deceptive speed. His OHL playoff MVP performance is no joke and he'll play second line centre in the NHL all day long.
Will the London Knights' third period meltdowns continue to cost them?
King: In many instances, the Knights had the offensive firepower to outscore their problems. Things changed when they ran into one of the best players in junior in Mark Scheifele and the upstart Colts. After winning a title last year and with the returning talent in their room, complacency must be a daily battle. These meltdowns may have hinted at overconfidence, or perhaps shaky goaltending which may lack killer instinct. Whatever the case may be, don't expect any team trailing the Knights in the third to pack up shop. This will remain a vulnerability until they prove otherwise.
Cosentino: The Barrie series proved that no London lead is safe. Unfortunately this problem didn't exist just in the OHL Championship series. We saw it in round 3 vs Plymouth and it happened on a couple of occasions in the regular season. To this point it's worked out, but in one-game showdowns there's no other "series game," to fall back on. London doesn't have Austin Watson to lean on when things get harry, nor do they have Michael Houser in-goal to make-up for any mistakes. A short memory and a less passive approach with a lead would be a good start. Teams have knowledge of this and will not lack confidence should they find themselves in a similar situation late in a game.
How motivated will the Portland Winterhawks be to capture the MasterCard Memorial Cup on Western Hockey League ice after the sanctions?
King: The comparisons to the New England Patriots and their infamous "Spygate" from 2006 are obvious, and completely within reason. The Winterhawks have completely embraced the "evil empire" label bestowed upon them, and they're playing with the chip on their shoulder one would expect. There's calmness about this team now. And how could there not be? If the Winterhawks didn't have enough motivation after losing in the league finals two years in a row, they have it now. That's a dangerous mentality to give a team this loaded in talent. They know there's no better way to stick it to the league's big wigs than by hoisting the biggest prize available. In a sense, they're playing for much more than just a trophy.
Cosentino: Motivation should not be hard to generate at this time of year. Acting Head Coach Travis Green has done an amazing job taking the sanction talk out of the dressing room and diverting all of that attention to himself whenever it arises. His next job will be to handle the sanction talk again, as it is likely to arise more than once in the next week or so with all the media attention this event garners. This may actually turn out to be a good thing if Green can continue to manage it the way he has while still extracting more edge from his hockey club. The Winterhawks will have to harness all that bitterness because they have no choice. Things look bright, especially up front for the next year or two, but after that it might be slim pickins', so the time is now for Portland. The Hawks would love nothing more than to make David Branch and by proxy Ron Robison feel like Gary Bettman at an NHLPA party when May 27th rolls around.
After winning the President's Cup for the first time in their 19 seasons, can the Halifax Mooseheads regain their emotional edge to propel them to another championship?
King: What a ride it's been for the Halifax Mooseheads! From the league cellar just a few seasons ago to league champions today. The Mooseheads have one of the most passionate fan bases in junior hockey and there aren't many fans in Halifax disappointed they didn't run the table, given that their only playoff loss in Game 3 of the final allowed them to win on home ice in Game 5. The main reason they will be able to overcome the emotion of winning their first title can be summarized in two words: Dominique Ducharme. Their head coach is as calm as they come. That calmness reverberates through his players.
Cosentino: Every year there is one team that can't find it's groove at the Mastercard Memorial Cup. Halifax is the likely candidate for this year's edition, and here's why; London returns for a second straight year, Portland feels like it should've been here each of the last two years, and Saskatoon has no pressure on it going in as a prohibitive underdog. That leaves Halifax. The city partied well into the morning after the Moosehead's big win on home ice in Game 5. Regenerating that passion, that emotion and that energy will be tough without the home crowd cheering the Moose on. The one thing that may repel this phenomenon is Halifax's high-end youth. The Mooseheads' three likely first rounders have the ability to win games on their own.
After bowing out in the first round of the playoffs, can the Saskatoon Blades follow in the footsteps of the Shawinigan Cataractes and win the MasterCard Memorial Cup?
King: As unthinkable as it was this time last year for the Cataractes to win the MasterCard Memorial Cup, even fewer will think it possible of this year's hosts. There's no real way to hang an air freshener on the host team being swept in the first-round of the playoffs, and fan morale is perhaps lower than it's ever been in the Bridge City. The wildcard here is that this is a tournament and the slate is wiped clean. The Blades should play with a chip on their shoulder and a burning desire to prove they should have gone further in the playoffs. They should turn some heads in the MasterCard Memorial Cup. But the crown will likely be determined between the other three participants.
Cosentino: Collectively the Blades say they will play pressure-less hockey because no one in this town or outside of it has given them a fighting chance. There's no video cameras following their every step. There's no weekly check-ups from the WHL offices and there's low expectations from a province that's been beat-down in the CHL this season. The Blades should be well-rested, they say they're in the best shape they've been in all season, and they claim to have their heads in the right place thanks to consistent intervention from a performance coach. Shawinigan did it last year, so with 21 more days than the Cataractes had to prepare, why can't the Blades do it this year?