Parity remains the theme in the Québec Major Junior Hockey League on the eve of the 2009-2010 season.
Just as it was the case last season, picking a winner from the QMJHL will be a daunting task. Predicting a winner last season was an exercise in futility as Drummondville, Shawinigan, Québec, Moncton and Rimouski threw their hats in the ring as contenders. Drummondville and Shawinigan went down to the wire in an epic, seven-game thriller to determine the league champion and if pre-season prognostications are any indicator, the QMJHL could be in for another photo finish.
Patrick Roy’s Québec Remparts assume the role as favourites going into the new campaign, but a clutter of other teams, particularly from the Atlantic Division, should keep things interesting.
“Everybody agrees on that,” said Yanick Jean, head coach of the Victoriaville Tigres, when asked if Québec was the front-runner.
The Remparts were also picked as contenders prior to last season but fell short of their championship goal in a five-game, semifinal series loss to the Shawinigan Cataractes.
Despite the summer speculation that Roy would leave the Remparts, the team he owns and operates, for a coaching job with the National Hockey League’s Colorado Avalanche, Roy swung for the fences on the trade front. Prior to the league’s summer draft, Roy made a blockbuster swap with the Lewiston MAINEiacs, acquiring grit and reliable goaltending in Danick Paquette and Peter Delmas, respectively.
Rumours persist that the trade signals Roy’s potential departure next summer when his team could be forced into rebuilding, particularly after dealing future assets in the trade with Lewiston.
The addition of Delmas will help secure the Remparts’ defence after goaltender Charles Lavigne graduated from junior hockey last season. Delmas, one of only three goaltenders to have been credited with scoring a goal in league play, will be looking for a bounce-back campaign after a dismal first year as a starter in Lewiston last season.
Paquette, meanwhile, should emerge as the league’s premier agitator/enforcer whose hands are good enough to score with regularity, as he did last season in Lewiston.
“I know the addition of Paquette obviously will solve a lot of their problems that I felt they had last year as far as toughness of the game goes,” said Eric Veilleux, head coach of the Shawinigan Cataractes. “Patrick (Roy) did mention something about it in the playoffs and he did a move to kind of solve it. They’re well balanced and have a lot of offensive punch.”
Veilleux’s Cataractes were in a dogfight with the Drummondville Voltigeurs throughout last season, often flip-flopping each other for the lead in both the Telus Central Division and overall league standings. The situation may play itself out again in the Atlantic Division this season with as many as four teams potentially contending for the regular season point race.
Among them is last season’s surprise team, the Moncton Wildcats. Although the Wildcats lose goaltender Nicola Riopel, who set a league record last season for the lowest goals-against average in a season at 2.01, sophomore goaltender Louis Domingue appears ready after leading Canada to a gold medal in last month’s under-18 tournament.
The Wildcats are also anticipating a big year from another sophomore and gold medalist, defenceman Brandon Gormley. The first overall pick in the 2008 QMJHL draft, Gormley produced offensively in a leading role on Canada’s under-18 team and is highly touted for this summer’s NHL draft.
The Saint John Sea Dogs are also being touted as a contender this season after revamping the hockey operations department in the summer. New head coach Gerard Gallant is confident his blend of veterans and youth could be a winning formula, particularly now that first overall import pick Stanislav Galiev has officially joined the team.
Galiev, a Russian who played last season in the United States Hockey League, joined the team recently after Moscow Dynamo challenged the transfer in attempt to keep him in his native country. The International Ice Hockey Federation, however, approved the transfer to Saint John.
Galiev is touted as a first-round pick in this summer’s NHL draft with the potential to go in the top 10.
“We know he’s a good, skilled hockey player and he’s going to fit in with his teammates very well,” said Gallant, who wasn’t able to use Galiev in pre-season because of the late transfer.
Saint John had less drama in reaching a transfer with Slovakian forward Tomas Jurco, who was taken three picks after Galiev in the import draft. Jurco is another highly skilled forward who could emerge as a dangerous scorer in the league this season.
“He has fabulous hands,” Gallant said. “We got what we thought we were going to get (in the import draft) and so far they look very good.”
The Wildcats and Sea Dogs will have competition from the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles and P.E.I. Rocket at the top of the Atlantic Division. The Screaming Eagles are an annual contender and should be even stronger with the additions of scorer Luke Adam and tough guy Ashton Bernard. Meanwhile, goaltender Olivier Roy could emerge as the top player at his position this season after having already started his first two seasons with the team.
P.E.I. could be an exciting team to watch with the addition of Samson Mahbod to a core already including Chris Doyle, Benjamin Casavant, Joel Champagne and top draft prospect Ben Duffy.
“Last year there was two (top teams) in our division, this year there’s four in theirs,” Veilleux said.
“The whole Atlantic Division will be competitive this year,” Gallant said. “When you play top teams it makes you better and I think we’ve got a great division for that.”
POTENTIAL DARK HORSES
The Voltigeurs and Cataractes don’t appear to be among the contenders like they were a year ago, but neither team should be written off. Both teams will be younger but have potential to surprise.
Shawinigan will be giving goaltender Gabriel Girard the starting job after Timo Pielmeier left for graduation. Girard looked strong when he relieved Pielmeier during the championship series and as thus the job is still his to lose.
“He has the potential to be a very good No. 1 goalie and right now the ball is going to be in his hand,” Veilleux said.
Meanwhile, the Victoriaville Tigres look to rebound after a few key injuries derailed last season. The Tigres could be a sleeper given their depth and experience on defence and in goal. Goaltender Kevin Poulin will be key after missing the majority of last season due to injury. Sophomore forward Brandon Hynes, another name to watch for in this summer’s draft, could emerge as a scoring threat.
“Everybody knows his upside – he’s a shooter,” Tigres coach Jean said. “(NHL scouts) want to see him shoot the puck and play the game all-around, improve his game a little bit and play with his strengths.”
The balance of power has shifted, as it usually does each season. The true test remains in the form of a nine-month marathon with the ultimate prize: a trip to Brandon, Man. for this year’s Memorial Cup.
“There are some very good teams this year and parity is always good in our league,” Veilleux concluded.