The stars grab the headlines, but as each will readily admit, a team achieves success.
Beyond the headliners in this year’s MasterCard Memorial Cup are those waiting in the wings, ready to strike and make the difference in their team’s season. The London Knights, Guelph Storm, Edmonton Oil Kings and Val-d’Or Foreurs will look for contributions from their sleepers.
Programming note: Catch live coverage of the MasterCard Memorial Cup on Sportsnet, beginning Friday, May 16 with a preview show at 6 p.m. ET / 3 p.m. PT on Sportsnet ONE, and the first game of the tournament between Val-d’Or and hosts London on Sportsnet East, Ontario, West and Pacific at 7 p.m. ET / 4 p.m. PT.
Here are four sleepers to watch in the tournament and each team’s key to victory.
Sleeper: Mitchell Marner
Although just a rookie, Marner is one of the Knights’ most skilled players. A pure playmaker, Marner makes his teammates better with his vision and creativity. He will see the more favourable matchups, which he will benefit from. Marner proved to be a quick study and was one of London’s best performers in their second round series loss to Guelph. He won’t be a secret after this tournament is over.
Keys to victory
There’s no secret to a Knights team that has been here before. Neutral zone pressure to force turnovers and a quick transition are the blueprint of the Knights’ success. The team’s depth and attention to detail allow them to play that style. They play a system that forces opposing teams to cough up the puck, something their fleet-footed forwards can capitalize on. Most of London’s goals in the 7-2 win over Guelph in Game 2 of their second round series were created from quick transition off turnovers. And that’s been London’s game over the previous two seasons: a smothering defensive style that creates the offensive opportunities for their speedy forwards.
Sleeper: Ryan Graves
The Foreurs paid a considerable price to acquire Graves’ rights from Charlottetown at the trade deadline, and the product of Yarmouth, N.S. didn’t disappoint. Graves sometimes plays like a gentle giant, but occasionally uses his size to dish out big checks. He doesn’t see top minutes behind Guillaume Gelinas and Randy Gazzola, which suits Graves just fine since he’s at his best in a complementary role. Graves is playing some of the best hockey in his career right now and was a big part of his team’s Game 6 win over Baie-Comeau in the championship series with a goal and two helpers.
Keys to victory
The Foreurs led the QMJHL in goals scored during the regular season, but a wide-open, offensive style won’t be their game-plan at the MasterCard Memorial Cup. Starting goaltender Antoine Bibeau, another trade pickup from Charlottetown, is his team’s backbone and much of its success will fall on his shoulders. The Foreurs were outshot in six of the seven games against Baie-Comeau in the final and all seven semifinal games against Halifax. It’s a trend that will likely continue against the Canadian Hockey League’s best.
Edmonton Oil Kings
Sleeper: Mitch Moroz
The hands are catching up to the chip on his shoulder. Moroz broke out offensively this season and became a key contributor on the scoreboard, but his biggest impact may be in his bull-in-a-china-shop mentality. Moroz is a man among boys physically and can simply dominate due to his size and aggressive style. He will make life difficult for opposing defencemen and goalies in this tournament.
Keys to victory
This is the least imposing of the past three versions of the Oil Kings. What makes them special is their character, goaltending and contributions throughout the lineup. Tristan Jarry emerged as one of the league’s best goaltenders in his first year as a starter and posted a .925 save percentage in the playoffs, among the best in the league. The Oil Kings step up when it matters most and can turn the pressure on for stretches with dominance, as they did with four second period goals that sucked the life out of the Winterhawks in Game 7 of the championship series. Those type of stretches could carry them in this tournament.
Sleeper: Justin Nichols
The biggest question mark for the Storm revolves around goaltending. The Storm, however, are confident in the play of their diminutive netminder. The strength of the team in front of him is always the biggest point of contention, but Nichols is a big piece to the puzzle. There were stretches when the Storm weren’t at their best, particularly against North Bay, and Nichols stood tall and held the fort, especially in Games 3 and 5. His .919 save percentage is among the best in the playoffs. As he was during their playoff run, Nichols could be the difference-maker in a close game.
Keys to victory
No team can match the Storm’s depth, both on offence and defence. Guelph is three lines deep up front and boasts a defensive core unmatched in this tournament. The Storm are at their best when everyone is contributing. Beyond their top stars, the Storm counted on depth players like Pius Suter (two goals in Game 4 against North Bay) and Tyler Bertuzzi (two goals in championship series) to win their first title since 2004.