Like the weather, if you don’t like your pick to be in the Mastercard Memorial Cup final, then wait 15 minutes because it will probably change.
Oftentimes, one or more teams can be written off as “too beaten-down” or “too young.” Or they might lack the kind of elite talent which takes a team from very good to exceptional. In the case of this tournament, the Erie Otters, Saint John Sea Dogs and Seattle Thunderbirds are each relatively healthy and rested. One could just as easily envision Dylan Strome, Thomas Chabot or Mathew Barzal, respectively, wrapping his junior days with a signature performance.
Meantime, the host Windsor Spitfires have had a 44-day layoff. When they play Saint John on Friday, defenceman Logan Stanley will be playing his first game in 17 weeks since tearing a meniscus. In other words, the table is wide open.
WINDSOR SPITFIRES (host)
Windsor, whose 182 goals against was third-fewest in the OHL regular season, has a solid defensive foundation with the top four of Mikhail Sergachev (MTL), Stanley (WPG), Sean Day (NYR) and Jalen Chatfield (VAN) reunited in front of sophomore goalie Michael DiPietro. Two-way forwards such as Jeremiah Addison (MTL) and Logan Brown (OTT) also contributed to Windsor leading the OHL in penalty killing during the regular season.
Windsor played 14 games against the OHL’s top-four teams after Feb. 1 and scored more than three goals during regulation exactly twice. That is less than sterling for a team with a half-dozen NHL-drafted forwards and a likely 2017 first-rounder, Gabriel Vilardi. Seemingly every frontline player was sidelined or playing hurt at some point. Forward Jeremy Bracco (TOR) had his point-per-game rate fall by nearly half after coming over from Kitchener.
It would not come as a shock if Windsor became the third host team of the past 20 years to win the Memorial Cup after losing early in its league playoffs, because of randomness and the long rest period. The last line of defence, DiPietro, and the blue line, are stout enough to keep them in games. No one can really state with any certainty what the six-week break and the return of Stanley, among others, to full health will do for a team which wasn’t able to consistently beat the best during the OHL season.
SAINT JOHN SEA DOGS (QMJHL)
First-pair partners Chabot (OTT) and Simon Bourque (MTL) are each sound with their positioning, puck handling and stick-checking, which gives Saint John a huge leg up on team defence. The Sea Dogs possess exceptional team speed — as a team with 17 players age 19 or older should. Veteran forwards such as Mathieu Joseph (TB) and Matthew Highmore (CHI) lead an aggressive penalty kill which had six short-handed goals — and seven power-play goals allowed — in the QMJHL playoffs.
The power play dipped to 17.6 per cent in the playoffs from a league-high 29.9 in the regular season, even though Saint John has three NHL first-rounders with Chabot, Jakub Zboril (BOS) and right wing Julien Gauthier (CAR). A lot of Saint John’s playoff scoring came from wearing out teams — they were outshot once in 18 games — which isn’t guaranteed at this level.
The 2011 Saint John team that brought the Maritimes its first Memorial Cup had a gruelling six-game league final that involved winning three road games. This group hasn’t had to run that kind of gauntlet. The Sea Dogs’ depth, with the top three lines are helmed by Highmore, Nathan Noel (CHI) and Samuel Dove-McFalls (PHI), will also get stress-tested during back-to-backs against Erie and Seattle on Monday and Tuesday. Goalie Callum Booth (CAR) will also be facing greater pressure.
ERIE OTTERS (OHL)
They can score early and often, as Alex DeBrincat (CHI), Strome (ARI), Anthony Cirelli (TB) and Taylor Raddysh (TB) all hit the 30-point plateau in the OHL playoffs. And the playoff MVP honours went to Strome’s right-hand man, Warren Foegele (CAR), who always seemed to deliver mic-drop goals. Erie’s last three opponents (London, Owen Sound and Mississauga) each had stacked scoring lines featuring first-round NHL talent, yet the Otters got outshot only thrice during 22 OHL playoff games. Darren Raddysh is the most accomplished overage defenceman in the tournament.
Erie has a goal differential of +171 across 90 games combined, while playing in the deepest division in the entire CHL. But there’s always a potential leak, especially with the shift from the more finesse-based OHL to an tournament format where the physical play gets ramped up even more quickly. Goalie Troy Timpano did need that break against Owen Sound in the third round, with backup Joseph Murdaca providing relief. The back end has been caught flat-footed a few times by speedsters such as Mississauga’s Owen Tippett.
As the champ from the host league, Erie will not have back-to-back games in the round robin. That’s good. Coach Kris Knoblauch has first-hand experience with the tournament after leading the WHL’s Kootenay Ice in 2011. That’s good, too. From an outside perspective, Erie is probably in a place where it still has unfinished business, but won’t become overwhelmed by it. While all three league champions have been juggernauts since Jan. 1, those extrinsic factors strengthen the case that Erie is the slight favourite.
SEATTLE THUNDERBIRDS (WHL)
A team could do a lot worse than having co-captain Barzal (NYI) and WHL defenceman of the year Ethan Bear (EDM) supplying the whole on-ice vision thing. Seattle’s power play was a lethal 35 per cent during the WHL playoffs. Right wing Keegan Kolesar (CLB), left wing Ryan Gropp (NYR) and second-line centre Alexander True have size to augment their skill. Scott Eansor and Sami Moilanen thrive at being nuisances on the forecheck.
The T-Birds allowed more power-play goals (21) in their league playoffs than Erie and Saint John combined, due in part to playing a man short 4.75 times per game. Kolesar, who was the WHL’s playoff scoring and penalty-minutes leader, will have to find a way to keep the positive aggression without getting overly drawn into the chippy aspect. Seattle, of course, has the fewest NHL draft picks (four) and the youngest goalie with Carl Stankowski, but those are not necessarily drawbacks.
The 2014 Edmonton Oil Kings and 2015 Oshawa Generals each won the tournament on the margin of their physical play. Seattle, between overage leader Eansor and a defence corps where Bear seems to be the only one shorter than 6-foot-3, seems to possess some similar qualities. Neither of those championship squads had someone as dominant in the offensive zone as Barzal, either.
As the WHL team, Seattle gets the compressed 3-in-4 schedule during the round-robin. The last five teams in that slot have all made the final, with three winning and the other two losing it in overtime.