The holiday break in the Canadian Hockey League serves as the unofficial midway point of the season. Sportsnet.ca reviews the surprising player and team as well as the disappointing player and team from the Québec Major Junior Hockey League.
Surprising team: Drummondville Voltigeurs
It’s a unique tale of worst to first as the Drummondville Voltigeurs went into the holiday break with the best record in the league. They set a franchise record by winning their last 17 games (and counting) and haven’t lost since Nov. 1 against fellow league contender and Telus Central Division rival, Shawinigan.
Many felt the Voltigeurs would be a vastly improved team this season but even their strongest supporters must be surprised with the way the franchise has turned around its fortunes. Drummondville had the worst record in the league last season, winning just 14 games all year and finishing with 33 points. Their current winning streak not only boasts more wins than all of last season but more points.
The main ingredient to their success is the acquisition of several players during the off-season. Drummondville brought in players such as Dany Massé, Yannick Riendeau, Patrik Prokop and Dmitry Kulikov. Massé leads the league in scoring while teammates Riendeau and Samson Mahbod aren’t far behind. Prokop brings Memorial Cup experience from last year’s Gatineau Olympiques while Kulikov is being touted as a top 15 pick for this summer’s NHL draft. Throw in a young, up-and-coming coach like Guy Boucher and it leads to dramatic improvement.
While a turnaround in Drummondville was anticipated, at this point they have to be considered the front-runners to win the President’s Cup as league champions.
Surprising player: Nicola Riopel, Moncton Wildcats
Some may argue Riopel shouldn’t be considered a surprise given he was a first-round QMJHL pick and one of the bright spots in an otherwise disappointing season in Moncton last season. It’s not surprising Riopel is succeeding this season; what’s surprising is the extent of his success. Riopel leads the league in goals against average at 1.79 and save percentage at 0.939.
As impressive as those numbers are, readers are reminded the QMJHL is by far the most offensive of the three leagues, making his numbers that much more impressive. By contrast, no other starter in the league has a goals against average below two while none have a save percentage higher than 0.927.
Riopel is just one of the main reasons the Moncton Wildcats have gone from a rebuilding team this time last year, to one of the top teams this season. While he plays in a defensive system in Moncton, there’s no question he’s the heart and soul of a team contending for the league championship. Without Riopel, the Wildcats would be a good team but it’s unlikely they would be enjoying as much success without the 6-0, 167-pound goaltender.
Undrafted and unwanted by NHL teams in the past, Riopel’s only taste of the NHL came last summer when the Montreal Canadiens offered him an invitation to a rookie camp. Unlike Saint John Sea Dogs goaltender Robert Mayer, who also attended Montreal’s camp as an undrafted free agent goaltender, Riopel’s camp didn’t earn him a contract with the Habs.
Although he’s a small goaltender, his performance in the QMJHL this season, coupled with a potential deep playoff run, should earn him a spot on some NHL team’s prospect chart this summer.
Disappointing team: Val-d’Or Foreurs
No team started slower in the Canadian Hockey League this season than the Val-d’Or Foreurs. It took Val-d’Or more than a month to record its first win, earning two points through an overtime and shootout loss in their first 14 games. Val-d’Or lost by three or more goals in each of their first six games of the season and while the team began playing more competitively after that, the losses were still piling up.
The losses aren’t for a lack of talent, however. The Foreurs boast a team certainly worthy of making the playoffs this season with goaltender Raffaele D’Orso, forwards Maxime Sauvé and Alexandre Monahan and defenceman Marco Scandella. The team is young and their 8-25-1-3 record is not a fair representation of the talent in their lineup.
As is generally the case when a league hosts the Memorial Cup – the tournament will be held in Rimouski in May – there is a broad discrepancy between league contenders and rebuilding teams. Prior to the start of the season, Val-d’Or figured to be a middle of the pack team.
Making matters even more interesting is the fact none of the other teams in their division can be labeled contenders. Of the other three divisions, at least two teams in each division have legitimate shots at winning the championship this season. The leader of the Telus Western Division pack are the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, a team that went young and traded away assets after a failed bid to win last season.
While the playoffs aren’t completely out of the question for Val-d’Or this season, they certainly dug a big hole in the first half.
Disappointing player: Raffaele D’Orso, Val-d’Or Foreurs
Like his team, the 19-year-old goaltender has struggled mightily this season. Much more was expected, particularly from their goaltender. D’Orso emerged as one of the league’s top goaltenders last season, his first as the starter in Val-d’Or. His 0.908 save percentage in 61 games last season was fourth highest among starting goaltenders.
The product of Montreal, Que. hadn’t yet been drafted by an NHL team but that meant little to coaches and general managers around the league. In Sportsnet.ca’s pre-season poll, D’Orso was narrowly edged by Montreal Juniors starter Jake Allen in the top goaltender category. The way the two have played this season, it’s no contest which has been more valuable to their team.
D’Orso showed a lot of promise as a rookie two seasons ago. The team, however, traded for overage goaltender Jérémy Duchesne in their pursuit of a championship, ultimately being swept in the league final by the Lewiston MAINEiacs. D’Orso posted a goals against average of 3.17 and save percentage of 0.888 in his first season, which would be an improvement over his totals through half of this season at 3.92 and 0.878.
If his team is going to reach the playoffs this season, D’Orso will need to return to form and steal some games in the second half.