The back-to-back champion Saint John Sea Dogs will be passing the torch, so to speak, to the Halifax Mooseheads.
The Mooseheads will host the Sea Dogs in an opening round matchup. Halifax is largely considered the favourite to win the President’s Cup as Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champions. If they do so, they would keep the trophy in the Maritimes Division for the fourth straight year.
The Mooseheads tied the QMJHL record for most wins in a season with 58, a record shared by the 2009-2010 Sea Dogs. The team that calls Nova Scotia’s capital home finished with 27 more points than the next closest competitor. All eyes will be on them, while a fellow Maritimes Division-rival could be a sleeper when the playoffs begin.
Regular season record: 58-6-3-1 (120 points)
League ranking: 1st in Maritimes Division, 1st overall
Goal differential: 347-176
First-round opponent: Saint John Sea Dogs
The Mooseheads carefully waited and bided their time for their rebuild to turn the franchise's fortunes around, and now the team is collecting dividends on the investment. It all started two years ago when the Mooseheads orchestrated two trades to acquire the rights to Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, who may both be drafted in the top three of the NHL's draft this summer.
General manager Cam Russell didn't stop there, also adding goaltender Zachary Fucale from the 2011 draft class and trading for defenceman Matt Murphy. They now have four of the top 11 picks from that draft with MacKinnon (first), Drouin (second), Murphy (fifth) and Fucale (11th). Their time may never be better than now, especially when considering neither MacKinnon nor Drouin are locks to return to junior next season.
Strengths: Their forwards are a deep and versatile group, headlined by stars Drouin and MacKinnon. These two sensational sophomores will provide the bulk of the offence and create some buzz with some highlight reel plays, as they did in each of the past two seasons.
What makes the Mooseheads so potent, however, is the offence extends beyond just these two. Martin Frk possesses a bomb, captain Stefan Fournier provides a scoring touch with some grit, and lesser-known players Darcy Ashley, Matthew Boudreau, Luca Ciampini and Stephen MacAuley can chip in. This team is three lines deep with two of the most gifted and creative scorers in junior.
Fucale was a workhorse for the Mooseheads and gained valuable experience in last year's surprising playoff run. He adjusted to facing fewer shots this season and can give his team the reliable goaltending they need.
Weaknesses: The Mooseheads received solid production from the blue line, particularly from German overage Konrad Abeltshauser and rookie MacKenzie Weegar. Adding Murphy at the trade deadline was another major coup for Russell, but this defensive core is the weakest link. Their defencemen posted solid numbers in all categories, but they won't be leading the team to victory. The defence is one area opposing teams will target, and hope to create enough quality chances to put a few past Fucale.
X-factor: With MacKinnon and Drouin both expected to be drafted in the top three, it's entirely possible both graduate to pro hockey next season. The Mooseheads would lose more than just those two, however, and will have a different makeup to a roster that should still be competitive next season. There are no guarantees in sports, and there may not be a stronger Mooseheads squad than this one. The clock is ticking on this team to finally win a championship, and this may be their best opportunity.
THE DARK HORSE
Regular season record: 41-23-3-1 (86 points)
League ranking: 3rd in Maritimes Division, 7th overall
Goal differential: 262-229
First-round opponent: Val-d'Or Foreurs
They were picked by most to finish near the bottom of the standings this year, which only helped fuel the desire to succeed. With virtually the same lineup as they had a year ago, when the team finished dead-last with just 19 wins, the Rocket emerged this season and set a franchise record with 41 wins this campaign. They're entering the playoffs hot with six straight wins and eight in their last 10.
The Rocket, who will be renamed the Islanders next season, haven't had much playoff success in the franchise's 14 seasons. Their only playoff series victory was in the 2004 playoffs, their first year in P.E.I. after relocating from Montreal the previous summer. This team appears poised to make their last season as the "Rocket" a memorable one, with a post-season that should, at least, equal the club's all-time previous success.
Strengths: Only four players hit the 100-point plateau in the QMJHL this season, and two of them were Rocket. Captain Josh Currie finished third with 49 goals and 104 points while teammate Ben Duffy, the Rocket's all-time scorer, took the scoring crown with 39 goals and 71 assists for 110 points. These two overages are the key cogs in the Rocket's lineup, providing offence and character.
There's depth in scoring behind these two with six players producing more than 40 points. Czech winger Matej Beran had more than a point-per-game pace with 49 in 46 games while Louick Marcotte emerged as a second-half scoring threat.
Their defencemen provide a little bit of everything while goaltender Antoine Bibeau stole the starting job from Max Lagace and became one of the league's top goalies. His .911 save percentage was second-best behind Blainville-Boisbriand starter Etienne Marcoux's .913.
Weaknesses: The Rocket aren't a very big team, with many of their forwards standing shorter than the 6-foot threshold. Their two stars, Currie and Duffy, stand 5-foot-11 and 5-foot-10 respectively. Their two biggest players, Beran and Troy Vance, aren't very gritty, and opposing teams may look to push the Rocket players around.
However, what the Rocket lack in size, they make up for with team toughness. P.E.I. led the QMJHL in fighting majors with 79, while Patrick McGrath had a Canadian Hockey League-high 29 fights this season. This team sticks up for each other, and that mentality could go a long way in the playoffs.
X-factor: The Rocket are hot entering the playoffs, and with two of the league's top scorers, along with one of the best goaltenders, they're well-positioned to make a run. By finishing seventh in overall standings, the Rocket not only secured home-ice advantage in the first round, but avoid a potential second-round meeting with league heavyweight Halifax.
This franchise has long since been the butt of jokes around the league for its lack of playoff success, but this year's version is poised to break through that image and re-write history in Canada's smallest province.